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Legislative leaders push back on Hochul's plan to revise the state's bail reform laws

Andrea Stewart Cousins talks with reporters.
Karen DeWitt
WBFO Albany Correspondent
State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks to reporters Wednesday in Albany.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is defending her proposed changes to the state’s 2019 landmark bail reform laws, writing an op-ed in a New York City tabloid, while the speaker of the Assembly is casting doubt on whether the items will be part of the state budget, which is due in about a week.

Hochul waited nearly a week to respond since a 10-point memo detailing her proposed changes to the state’s criminal justice laws was leaked to the media. In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Hochul says bail reform has been a success and has resulted in fewer New Yorkers being kept behind bars because they can’t afford to pay. But she admits that there has been a “distressing increase in shootings and homicides” since the law was passed, and she says the legislation is “not perfect.”

Hochul, who did not take questions after making a speech at a state trooper graduation ceremony, issued the opinion piece along with Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin.

Benjamin, who as a state senator was a strong advocate of the criminal justice changes, ducked reporters twice instead of answering questions about the memo. Late Tuesday, he responded.

“We believe bail reform is a good thing,” Benjamin said. “We also believe, given what we are seeing, that there should be some amendments.”

Among the changes Hochul is seeking are making it harder for repeat offenders to avoid bail, and allowing judges to consider more factors when they decide whether a defendant should be eligible for bail or simply released until their court date. She also wants to make more gun-related crimes bail eligible.

The governor, who is running for election to the post she filled last August when Andrew Cuomo resigned, is under pressure from political opponents. Both Democratic and Republican candidates have issued a barrage of ads faulting her for not acting to revise the bail reform laws and linking the issue to rising crime rates.

Legislative leaders strongly backed bail reform, saying it would help to quell inequities between the way Black and Brown New Yorkers are treated in the criminal justice system compared to whites. They are reluctant to make changes without seeing more data on whether the laws have contributed to rising crime.

Studies by New York University’s Brennan Center and the New York City comptroller did not find evidence that the changes are causing the crime wave.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who has negotiated eight budgets, says he and his members won’t be coerced by the governor to rush, with only a few days left until the end of the fiscal year, when the proposals can be decided later in the session.

“I’m not threatened by anything,” Heastie said. “I’m not going to feel pressured by anything.”

The speaker says other causes for the crime wave need to be examined, including the long and still-ongoing pandemic, and breakdowns in many social services that helped prevent crimes from happening. He says he’s angered that opponents of bail reform say he and other lawmakers don’t care about public safety.

“That’s all bulls**t,” the speaker said. “We care about having safe communities. And I hate when people try to politicize these things.”

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says she supported bail reform because of real-life tragedies, including that of Kalief Browder, a teen who was incarcerated for months when he could not make bail for a crime he did not commit and eventually committed suicide. The Senate Leader told reporters that she and her Democratic members do not want to “go backwards” and undo the benefits of bail reform. And she says she was taken unawares by the governor’s proposed changes.

“Well, obviously the 10 points took me by surprise,” said Stewart-Cousins, who said she was aware that the governor had been “thinking about” public safety improvements.

Stewart-Cousins says crime has been rising in many other states that did not change their bail laws.

The legislative leaders are not rejecting all of the governor’s proposals. Stewart-Cousins and Heastie say they are open to Hochul’s proposals to increase funding for pre-trial services, youth diversion programs and employment programs.

The governor also wants to strengthen Kendra’s Law, which allows judges to order that some people with mental illness who might present a danger to themselves or others to be involuntarily committed or face mandatory outpatient treatment. The proposal includes more money for psychiatric hospital beds so no one who needs help is turned away.

Stewart-Cousins says Democratic senators back more mental health services.

“We have to do more in terms of investing in mental health and making sure that the supports are there,” she said, “in order to mitigate some of the things that we see.”

Criminal justice advocates, who have criticized Hochul’s 10-point memo, reacted angrily to the op-ed. Marvin Mayfield, with the Center for Community Alternatives, said in a statement that it is “a disingenuous attempt to paint a sweeping and regressive policy proposal as a reasonable and targeted response to harm.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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