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New York Bail Reform Rollback Takes Effect

Charles Rex Arbogast

Thursday marked the start of new rules regarding who can be held on bail in New York State. The new law rolls back some bail reform measures passed in 2019, and criminal justice advocates say it’s the wrong time to do it, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Last year, the newly elected Democratic-led state Senate and Assembly eliminated all forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes. They also changed what’s known as the state’s discovery laws, and required prosecutors to turn over to defendants all evidence against them within 15 days of arrest.

In the past, many defendants in Black and Brown communities waited months or even years in pretrial detention, without knowing the details of the case against them, or whether there is evidence that could exonerate them. 

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is African American, said in a November 2019 interview with public radio and television, that it was long overdue.

“This is something that’s been needed to be fixed for a very long time,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But late in 2019, as the new rules were set to take effect, there was a backlash from law enforcement, who said it went too far and would result in a crime spike, as repeat offenders were released back into the community. Prosecutors said they were not equipped to turn over all of the evidence in a two-week window. Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said last December that he lacked staff and adequate computers to process the material, which can often include hours of video from police body cameras.  

“That is far too much data to even load on to a DVD,” Carney said.

In January, law enforcement groups highlighted a few incidents where repeat offenders were released on their own recognizance.     

During budget negotiations in March, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed to roll back some of the reforms. They added back several crimes to make them once again eligible for bail, including second-degree burglary, promoting child pornography and vehicular manslaughter, a crime associated with drunken driving fatalities. They also gave prosecutors more time, up to 35 days, to turn over evidence to defendants. Cuomo said that while he was proud of the original bail reform laws, they needed some tweaks.

“The bail reform that we did last year, I’m very proud of,” Cuomo said on April 2. “And I think the improvements we made this year are the right ones, also.”

Those changes are now taking effect, and advocates say it is the worst time for the rollback.   

Marvin Mayfield, a prisoners rights advocate, with the group Center for Community Alternatives, spent 11 months on Rikers Island in pre-detention, without knowing the details of the case against him. He eventually agreed to a plea bargain, even though, he says, he did not commit the crime. Mayfield says the rollback is happening as COVID-19 presents a threat to inmates in jails that are ill-equipped for social distancing, and the country is in the midst of a new civil rights movement, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others after encounters with police.

“It’s shameful to reverse these gains, especially in the midst of a pandemic and during a national uprising in defense of Black lives,” Mayfield said.  

Rodney Holcombe with the reform group fwd.us, says the campaign against bail reform was fueled by “racism, fear and lies” and will lead to more incarceration.

“Which means thousands more mostly legally innocent mostly Black and Latinx people will be jailed,” Holcombe said.

The governor and legislative leaders did not immediately return a request for comment.

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.
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