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Revisions to New York's bail reform laws could be part of the state budget

Kathy Hochul
Hans Pennink
Associated Press
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her first State of the State address in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Albany, N.Y.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul is raising the stakes in the state’s budget, due at the end of the month. She’s reported to be pushing for changes to New York’s controversial bail reform laws, even though legislative leaders have said they are not yet ready to alter the laws.

Hochul included policies in her budget proposal that are not directly related to spending, including a plan to make permanent takeout alcoholic beverages at restaurants, and a restructuring of the state’s troubled ethics commission.

Legislative leaders, who like Hochul are also Democrats, did not include any of those ideas in their budget proposals. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said at the time that the decision, made by the Assemblymembers in his party conference, was not a shot at the governor.

“I’m not trying to send Governor Hochul a message. I’m just relaying the feelings and sentiments of the conference,” Heastie said on March 14. “They just want to put forward a fiscal document.”

But, with the leak of a memo from the governor’s office, first reported in the New York Post, that would make major changes to the state’s 2019 bail reform laws which ended most forms of cash bail, there’s heightened tensions between the Legislature and governor.

According to the paper, Hochul is proposing that judges be allowed to hold defendants who are considered dangerous pre-trial without bail. Some offenses, including all gun-related crimes, would once again become eligible for bail, meaning judges could once again set a cash payment in order for someone to be freed before their trial occurs. And, if someone is released without bail after being accused of a crime and is arrested for a second offense, then they would have to post bail to avoid being incarcerated until their trial date.

Hochul has come under fire from political opponents in the 2022 governor’s race, both Democrats and Republicans, who blame New York’s rising crime rates on the reforms.

The Democratic Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, has also called for changes.

Speaking before the memo was leaked, Hochul predicted that non-related policy items would end up in the final spending plan.

“Yes we’ll have policy in the budget,” said Hochul, who said that last year’s budget contained 10 non-spending related items. “There is precedent.”

Governors have more leverage during the budget process to get unrelated legislation approved than they do in the rest of the session.

But Speaker Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins were champions of bail reform. Both leaders are African-American, and they cited data that showed Black New Yorkers were adversely impacted by the old laws, and were more frequently held in pre-trial incarceration than wealthier whites who could afford to post bail.

Stewart-Cousins said opponents of bail reform are using the laws as a scapegoat when other preventative measures like better community outreach and gun control would do more to combat crime.

“The kind of orchestrated message that somehow this is wrong — not true,” said Stewart-Cousins who said the Senate also wants to invest in mental health services and anti gun trafficking measures.

“We will continue to work on these issues, because we want New York to be the safest city in the country as well,” the Senate Leader said.

The governor’s proposals were condemned by criminal justice advocates. In a statement, the coalition New Yorkers United for Justice said, “The plan’s proposals are neither evidence-based, nor likely to reduce crime or recidivism.”

A spokeswoman for the governor, Hazel Crampton-Hays, neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the proposal, saying the governor has said “consistently” that she does not negotiate in public.

The governor conceded earlier this week though that one of her priority proposals might not make it into the budget. She said that alcohol-to-go, which is opposed by the state’s liquor distributors, may have to wait until later in the legislative session.

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.