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Justice Matters

State Legislators Speak Out About Proposed Bail Reform Impact on State Budget Negotiations

By Mary Alice Miller
This year’s budget is more than two weeks late, making it difficult for municipalities and agencies like the MTA to work on their own budgets with the assurance of state funding levels. Governor Hochul’s policy priorities are at odds with the New York State Senate and Assembly, delaying a final budget deal.
One of Hochul’s most contentious budget proposals is her response to a 2019 bail reform law that eliminated cash bail and mandated release for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. New York State precedent mandates that judges only consider a person’s likelihood of returning to court when setting bail. But Hochul insists on including in her budget an overarching plan to overturn decades of that legal precedent to give judges broad power to remand bail-eligible people to jail pending trial that would build upon her bail reform rollbacks that were added to last year’s state budget. Those rollbacks included a defendant’s history of “flight to avoid criminal prosecution”, judicial consideration of public safety, or judges taking into account vague elements like a defendant’s “activities and history.”
State legislators are not having any of it. But Hochul forced the issue by including her proposals in this year’s state budget.

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker is on the 12th day of a hunger strike to protest the Governor’s proposed rollbacks on criminal justice reform.
“The number one issue in our state budget this year is locking up Black and brown people,” said Walker. “The changes would no doubt result in more coerced guilty pleas and wrongful convictions. The proposed changes will result in lengthier pretrial detention, coerced plea deals, and wrongful convictions. Kalief Browder languished in jail for three years without access to the evidence against him. That is not the future I want for New York.”
Implemented on Jan. 1, 2020, discovery reform puts the burden on prosecutors to turn over evidence within 20 to 35 days after arraignment, including police records, witness information, and any existing exculpatory evidence. Prior to discovery reform, prosecutors were not required to turn over information like witness statements, recordings, criminal records, and pending criminal actions until the commencement of trial, which limited a defendant and their counsel the opportunity to investigate and respond to the information.
“The State has shown it is on a mission to fill jails to the max by denying Black, Brown, and low-income people the right to defend themselves in court and be productive while they await a hearing of an infraction they are not convicted of but accused,” said Assemblywoman Monique Chandler-Waterman. “As a legislator representing a district whose residents are predominately Black and Brown, I know how unfair and draconian this broken justice system can be. I am demanding the Governor change course.”

“The Assembly continues to hold the line on bail to continue the protection of Black and Brown people accused of low-level crimes who were unreasonably detained while awaiting trial. There are no facts that substantiate bail is the cause of crime. What we know to be true is that people aren’t born criminals. The environment in which they live influences their life choices and impacts their trajectory in life. By improving education and providing quality housing and, healthcare, a living wage, we can reduce crime. When people have resources, they are more likely to be contributing members of our society.,” said Assemblywoman Stefani Zinerman. “I urge the residents of the 56th to use their power to advocate for fair policies that will help them and their families.”
“We did bail reform because we wanted to stop poor people having to stay in jail while rich people got to walk the streets for the same kind of offenses and it’s not like we have gotten rid of bail totally,” said Senator Kevin Parker. “Over the last 5 years, the state legislature has led the charge on judicial and trial reform as well as criminal justice reform generally. We raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 17. We decriminalized small amounts of marijuana/cannabis; then we legalized cannabis. We released a number of people who had been serving time for cannabis-related crimes in the City and the State of NY.”
Parker continued, “We dealt with speedy trial and discovery to make sure that people got a trial as fast as they could. We dealt with discovery laws, making sure that prosecutors were sharing the information they had against defendants as soon as possible, then we did bail reform.”

Parker said that during the past 2 years the state legislature put more money into more lawyers and staffing in prosecutors’ offices so they could properly process discovery requests.
“I don’t like the fact that non-budgetary items are being negotiated in the middle of the state budget,” said Parker. “I think there is enough to negotiate in the context of a $227B budget.”
“We have leadership in the Senate with Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assemblyman Carl Heastie, who is the Speaker of the Assembly who believe in the process, are expert at getting to agreements and are using all of their skills, talents, and abilities to make sure that we land this budget in a place that does the best for as many people as we can,” said Parker.
“I do know that negotiating a budget is not an easy task. I do know Kathy Hochul is somebody who cares about the people of the state of New York, but the system we all work in is an adversarial system,” Parker said. “I commend the governor for being committed to the process. Even though we may not agree on everything, I never question her willingness to help people and leave the state in a better situation than where she found it. We will continue to work together on the process until we get a result that we can get a three-way agreement on and hopefully, that will be sooner than later.”