ALBANY — New campaigns to fight misinformation about the state’s criminal justice reforms grew louder this week in an attempt to steer a politically saturated debate over the need to edit the state’s bail and discovery laws.
Legislative leaders in Albany are expected to continue discussions next week about the need to revisit the state’s 2019 changes to its cash bail system as top state leaders remain at odds over the need to amend reforms rolled back in 2020.
Policy experts with project Justice Not Fear, launched by media and education initiative Zealous, work to refute misleading reports and statements on the state’s bail laws as officials — especially members of law enforcement and campaigning Republicans — tie the 2019 changes to a double-digit increase in homicides and violent crimes across the state seen since 2020.
“Ninety-eight percent of people released pretrial have not been rearrested for any felony that’s classified as violent that includes charges like simple possession of a weapon, even though there is no harm to a person alleged it’s still a violent felony offense,” said MK Kaishian, a civil rights attorney and legal policy and justice advocacy fellow for Zealous.
About 2% of the rough total 183,000 New Yorkers released before their trial without bail were rearrested for a violent crime, according to state Office of Court Administration data.
“Some of those cases are later dismissed, some of those charges are later reduced by prosecutors,” Kaishian said. “So this is really just people who are having those arrests happen.”
New York City Mayor Eric L. Adams, a Democrat, urged lawmakers Wednesday to make targeted amendments to the state’s bail laws to allow judges greater discretion in determining a defendants’ level of dangerousness — especially individuals accused of violent crimes with a firearm.
“I think we can tweak it and make it right and get what we’re desiring,” Adams said at a virtual budget hearing Wednesday.
Both parties remain strongly at odds about the safety of the system changes.
Accused criminal offenders who post bail are rearrested at higher rates, but some officials maintain the state’s 29% increase in homicides in 2020 is tied to bail reform.
Adams, a former state senator and New York City Police Department captain, told several lawmakers that the bail and discovery laws should be reviewed, to watch for a pattern of judges abusing the discretion, but could not name his specific, desired revisions for the statute or another U.S. state to model.
The law is expected to be an important topic of discussion as Adams prepares to meet with legislative leaders in Albany and Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul prepares to release 30-day amendments to her proposed $216 billion executive budget.
Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea A. Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, have maintained that revisiting the bail laws are not part of their legislative priorities for the 2022 session or as budget negotiations heat up for the 2022-23 fiscal year.
“I’m certainly more than happy to discuss anything with the mayor,” Stewart-Cousins said on the topic Tuesday. “… There is certainly a broader conversation we can have about criminal justice reform — all kinds of reforms. Certainly, I want it to be very, very clear we are concerned, as everyone is, about the spike in crime.”
The leaders of the Senate and Assembly argue that the changes to New York’s bail and discovery laws have been successful in limiting the number of people languishing in jail without funds to post bail.
“We do not want to criminalize poverty,” the Senate leader said.
Hochul again this week declined to publicly reveal her stance on changing the state’s bail system this session, reiterating her refusal to negotiate important policy through the press.
The governor spoke with Heastie, Stewart-Cousins and several senators and assemblymembers about proposals in the 2022-23 fiscal year budget early this week.
“Those conversations continue,” Hochul said on the topic Wednesday at an unrelated press conference.
The governor plans to discuss the controversial criminal justice reforms with mayors and local leaders across the state as the joint legislative budget hearings continue through next week.
“It’s all processed into a larger conversation about what is right for the state of New York,” she said. “All of this will be resolved. Right now, this is information-gathering.”
“… There’s been very frequent and impactful conversations even this early in the budget process, so I feel good about what’s going to be the ultimate outcome,” she added.
The Legislature’s 2019 decision to limit pretrial detention for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies was intended to ensure equality in release regardless of socioeconomic status and reverse the trend of mass incarceration and more severe punishment of Black and Hispanic people — a disparity prevalent throughout U.S. and state prisons and courtrooms.
State discovery laws were also changed to prevent prosecutors from delaying the start of a trial without turning over evidence to the defense, increasing the likelihood a defendant would default to a plea deal to end lengthy or expensive court proceedings.
Legislative leaders look forward to speaking with Adams in private, at length, about his demands to alter the bail laws.
“He knows how this works — I’m sure he’ll be speaking to Speaker Heastie and myself soon,” Stewart-Cousins said.