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New York GOP Lawmakers Push Back Against Democrats' Criminal Justice Changes

Prison cells
Courtesy of Pixabay

Democrats who lead the New York state Legislature are moving ahead with several criminal justice reforms in the remaining weeks of the 2021 session. But Republicans, who are in the minority party, are pushing back, saying the measures go too far and will contribute to the rising crime rate across New York.

Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay said the crime rate in major cities in New York increased in 2020, and that concerning trend is continuing in 2021.

“It seems like every morning we wake up to see another story about violence in our streets or a shooting where innocent victims are either killed or injured,” said Barclay, who added Democrats who lead the Legislature in Albany are “doing nothing” about it.

The rate of violent crimes is up nationally as well, though not as high as in earlier decades like the 1980s and 1990s.

Some political leaders and law enforcement officials have attributed the rise to increased societal tensions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of key services that could discourage people from committing crimes, and a lack of adequate gun control laws.

But Republicans in the state Legislature place the blame on the recently enacted laws approved by Democrats in the Senate and Assembly and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They said ending New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy and the elimination of most forms of cash bail have led criminals to take advantage of the changes to commit more offenses.

“Their policies have created what has essentially become a revolving door for criminals,” said Assemblyman Mike Reilly, a former NYPD officer who represents Staten Island. “Each time more emboldened to challenge the system and see just how far they can go.”

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt held a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol, along with other GOP senators, to oppose a measure known as Elder Parole. It would permit inmates 55 and older who have already served 15 years of their sentence an automatic parole hearing.

Ortt said that would make notorious criminals like David Berkowitz, the 1970s serial killer known as Son of Sam, eligible, as well as Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon in 1980, and Colin Ferguson, who committed a deadly mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993.

“I’m not interested in rehabilitating the Son of Sam,” Ortt said. “He’s in jail, Colin Ferguson is in jail, for the rest of their life. They can be rehabilitated in the next life.”

Republicans also oppose a measure known as Clean Slate, which would expunge some criminal records for those who have already served their time in prison.

Cuomo recently voiced his concerns about the growing crime rate during an appearance in New York City, where he said public safety is the “key” to New York’s post-pandemic reopening.

“First, public safety,” Cuomo said on May 27. “Public safety, public safety, public safety, crime, crime, crime."

Ortt said Republicans would like to see Cuomo introduce his own package of bills to change policies.

A spokesman for Cuomo said there is no link between the bail reforms and the increased crime rate, and condemned the GOP’s comments.

"There are many real problems dealing with crime that require real solutions, but trotting out the same craven, debunked and discredited (former President Donald) Trump talking points on cash bail reform isn't among them,” said Cuomo communications director Rich Azzopardi.

Republicans are offering alternative measures that would restore judicial discretion in bail decisions, and let a judge take into account the seriousness of the alleged crime and choose whether to hold a defendant without bail. Another would require a unanimous vote of at least three parole commissioners to grant a prisoner early release. The GOP would also like to add five years to the sentence of anyone who commits a felony while possessing a loaded gun.

The Democrats remain committed to Clean Slate, Elder Parole and other criminal justice changes, saying it’s a matter of fairness and giving inmates who have served their time a second chance.

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.