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New York state budget stalled over bail reform changes

The New York state Capitol building at night, in Albany, NY.
The New York state Capitol building at night, in Albany, NY.

All is quiet at the State Capitol now that lawmakers have left for the spring holidays — despite not yet completing a state budget that was due April 1.

Differences over whether to once again change New York’s bail reform laws continue to simmer.

Gov. Kathy Hochul held up the budget for nine days last year to successfully win changes to the state’s 2019 bail reform laws.

The laws, which ended many forms of cash bail, have been controversial. Supporters say it prevents lengthy stays in jail for people who are accused of minor crimes but can’t afford to post bail.

But opponents say the laws have been a factor in the crime spike that began during the pandemic. They say they should be fully repealed.

Hochul has tried to walk a middle line, saying the law does improve things for those accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. But she said the laws need to be further revised to give judges more discretion to set bail when someone is charged with more serious crimes.

Hochul, in an interview with public radio in late March, said she wants to get rid of the requirement that judges must use the “least restrictive means” when deciding whether to set bail for someone accused of a felony.

“I’m working hard to have policies that make sense, to give clarity to judges. So that there's no inconsistency. And that we deal with the serious offenses,” Hochul said on March 30. “This is what New Yorkers want us to do.”

Hochul has public opinion polls on her side, along with the aid of a political action committee partly funded by billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, which is running ads supporting the governor’s proposals.

“Nine of out of ten New Yorkers agree: Crime is a serious problem,” a narrator intones. “People want the bail laws fixed.”

So far, Democrats who lead both houses of the Legislature have not been swayed.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he and his members are reluctant to change the bail reform laws again because they don’t believe that the data shows that bail reform has contributed to the crime spike.

He points to a John Jay College study that found the law was working and reducing recidivism rates for those accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Opponents of the laws point to another study finding, which correlated to an increased recidivism rate among some people with substantial violent criminal histories.

And Heastie said while other states have given judges more power to determine whether an accused person presents a danger to themselves or others, they have not seen a corresponding reduction in crime.

“Our next-door neighbor, New Jersey, their index crimes are up, they have a ‘dangerousness’ standard,” Heastie said. “None of those things have been able to solve the issue of crime.”

The speaker acknowledges, though, that a public perception that things are less safe is real and needs to be addressed. But he said bail reform has been made the scapegoat for increased crime.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt backs Hochul’s proposal but would like to go further and repeal the laws. He said instead of arguing about the root causes for the crime spike, Democratic lawmakers should ask themselves if the current bail reform laws are making things safer.

“Are these laws making New Yorkers more safe? Are we helping with the spike in crime? Is it contributing to it?” Ortt asked. “Or is it just adding to the chaos, another log on the fire?”

Ortt, who has held office for eight years, said he’s never seen the budget process lag this far behind. And he said many key issues, including how much the total spending should be and how to pay for it, have yet to be addressed.

“(It’s) the first time I can ever remember getting to this date with really just absolutely no clarity on a state budget, even a framework,” Ortt said. “Those are real issues, that there's disagreement on a lot of times, too. How much money to spend, where does the money go?”

Also unresolved is the question of whether to raise taxes to finance the spending. Ortt and Hochul oppose raising taxes on the rich. Democrats in the Senate and Assembly back an increase.

Ortt said this year’s budget process harkens back to earlier decades when state budgets were often weeks, or even months, late.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.