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Bail reform was a New York wedge issue in 2021. Politicos are assessing whether it will stick

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y.
Alex Brandon
/
AP
U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y.

Recent reforms to the state’s bail process, including an end to most forms of cash bail, were a wedge issue in last week’s elections that helped Republicans make inroads in Democratic-dominated New York.

The suburbs of Long Island are considered a swing region in statewide elections. In the last decade, voters had been steadily electing more democratic politicians including in the New York state Senate, once a Republican stronghold, and for local offices.

But this year, Republicans pulled off upset wins in the Nassau County Executive and the Nassau and Suffolk County District Attorney’s races. Incumbent county executive Laura Curran, who had been comfortably ahead in the polls, lost. Rising state Senator Todd Kaminsky also failed in his attempt to win an open seat for Nassau DA. Kaminsky voted for bail reform in 2019. He was also a supporter of an amendment to that law, approved in 2020, that would give judges back more discretion on whether to set cash bail for a criminal defendant.

GOP candidates ran against the criminal justice reforms approved by the Democrats in Albany, arguing they have led to higher crime rates and less public safety. Republican State Party Chair Nick Langworthy said the argument resonated with voters.

“The effects of bail and discovery reform and the dismantling of our criminal justice system has affected every New Yorker and made them less safe,” said Langworthy. “That was on the ballot on Long Island, in those DA’s races. That is why the Democrats were dispatched.”

Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, a moderate democrat who is considering a run for governor in 2022, has been sounding the alarm to Democrats about laws and policies that might be too far to the left for the general public.

He said bail reform is a good example.

“The bail reform issue in New York State was effectively weaponized by the Republicans,” Suozzi said. “A lot of issues have been weaponized effectively, because the American public does not support a lot of talk that’s coming out of the far left, as well as the far right.”

Governor Kathy Hochul throughout her career in elected office has been a moderate Democrat. But, since taking office in August after the resignation of former Governor Andrew Cuomo, she’s backed a number of criminal justice reforms. Hochul recently signed a parole reforms into law. In a conversation with City and State magazine, sponsored by AARP, she defended the bail reform laws, saying she does not think they are related to the recent crime spike, which she attributes to economic and psychological hardships caused by the pandemic.

“Society was seen to be very fragile, and as a result there has been more crime in the streets,” Hochul said. “What I’m doing to make sure we treat people fairly does not have a correlation between the two.”

So far, there is no evidence that bail reform and other criminal justice changes have led to the higher crime rate since the pandemic began. Incidences of violent crime, though more frequent than in 2019, are still much lower than the higher rates of crime in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hochul, who is running for election to her job, faces competition from the left of her party, including from state Attorney General Letitia James, a popular progressive Democrat. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio, who are both considering runs, are also to the left of the mainstream of their party.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will have to compete in a general election, where more moderate to conservative leaning independent voters have increasing sway over the outcome.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.