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New York To End Most Cash Bail In 2020

Charles Rex Arbogast

Beginning January 1, some criminal justice law changes take effect in New York that have divided defendants’ rights advocates and law enforcement groups.

New York will end cash bail for everyone accused of a nonviolent crime, and adopt new rules in the pretrial discovery process. It will require prosecutors to turn over to defendants all of the evidence that they have against them within 15 days of arrest.

Supporters say the current laws have meant that those accused of crimes and who can’t make bail spend weeks or even months in jail, without learning what evidence a prosecutor has against them until their trial begins. Many plead guilty to lesser charges without knowing if there is evidence that could exonerate them.

The bills languished in the legislature for years but were approved in 2019 when Democrats took over the Senate. Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (in an interview with public radio and TV in November) says the changes are long overdue and will help fix a “broken system.”

She cites the case of Kalief Browder, who was 16 when he was accused of stealing a backpack. His family could not afford the few hundred dollars for bail, and he spent three years in jail at Rikers Island, at times in solitary confinement. His cause was picked up by celebrities like Jay Z, and he was eventually released. But he did not recover from his ordeal.

“He was so emotionally damaged, that he committed suicide,” Stewart-Cousins said.

There’s been backlash to the changes. Law enforcement groups have held press conferences, saying they need more funding to hire more staff and update antiquated computers to get evidence to defendants by the 15-day timeline.  Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney says it’s more than just giving defendants and their lawyers a stack of papers. He says police now have “massive amounts of video evidence.”

“We have bodycams we have dashcams, we have surveillance cameras, we have cameras in interview rooms. All of that stuff has to be viewed in real time,” said Carney, who says sometimes a major incident can involve 10 police officers for several hours, all with body cameras. 

“That’s far too much data to even load onto a DVD that we can copy and share with the defense,” he said. “It just can’t be done.”

Others, including the head of the state’s Republican Party, Nick Langworthy, worry that ending bail will result in what they call a “catch and release” policy. Their concern is that dangerous criminals, or people with untreated mental health or substance abuse issues, could walk free.

“Most New Yorkers aren’t going to know a damn thing about this until it becomes law on January 1,” he said on December 9. “When jail doors are opened, and the jails are emptying.”

Langworthy says the laws were changed “in the dead of night” during the state budget process, and the public did fully realize the implications.

Supporters of the law, including Khalil Cumberbatch, with the advocacy group New Yorkers United for Justice, says eliminating most forms of cash bail will actually make communities safer.

“Most people who return to their community after exiting the criminal justice system will not actually go on to be threats to public safety,” said Cumberbatch. “They are people who are family members, mothers, fathers.” 

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who shepherded the bill through his chamber, says the reforms are meant to change a “racist and classist system.” He says other states, including Republican-dominated Texas have enacted similar reforms, with no significant negative consequences.

“Deep red states have made changes in criminal justice reform,” Heastie said. “I understand the district attorneys and the sheriffs are resistant to change. But everywhere else that this has been done, it’s been shown to be a more fair system and has not led to an increase in crime.” 

Heastie says there are no plans to significantly change the new laws. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed the bills into law, also has not advocated any rollbacks. Senator Stewart-Cousins says she’s open to trying to find more funding for the district attorneys, but she says the changes are going to save money.

“And by the way, holding people who are accused of nonviolent crimes or misdemeanors in county jails across the state costs billions of dollars,” Stewart-Cousins said.  

And she says Senate Democrats are open to “tweaks” in the laws if necessary, once they have time to fully take effect.

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.