Crime debate percolates even as some embrace bail ‘fix’

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ALBANY — The argument over criminal justice policy in New York is intensifying even after the new state budget made alterations to the bail laws.

Three starkly different positions have emerged:

Some lawmakers argue the legislation will restore some balance to the criminal justice system and allow those accused of gun crimes to be jailed before trial.

Some police executives, law enforcement union leaders and Republicans say the changes amount to window dressing, with judges still unable to assess defendants for the public safety risks they pose.

Public defenders are contending the changes amount to a harmful rollback of progressive policy initiatives designed to keep poor people from being jailed simply because they lacked money for bail.

Pointing to an ongoing wave of violent crime, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-Long Island, the GOP frontrunner for his party’s nomination for governor, said the legislation supported by Gov. Kathy Hochul, amounts to “toothless cosmetic alterations that will maintain the status quo of our streets and subways being ruled by criminals.”

Hochul defended the bail changes, telling reporters in New York City they grew out of a willingness to compromise in “hard-fought” negotiations.

“We had to do something,” she said. “I’m proud I was able to work with legislative leaders.”

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro traveled to Albany on Monday and to Utica and Tuesday to join a cadre of county sheriffs who argued the bail changes are an insufficient response to mounting incidents of violence.

“It’s good they acknowledge improvements are necessary but they still don’t strike at the very fundamental flaw with cashless bail in New York,” said Molinaro, now challenging U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck. “You can’t have a scenario where judges and the system can’t take risk into consideration. Individuals are being returned to the community without any incentive to not commit another crime.”

Some of the earlier changes made by lawmakers were necessary, although they went too far in limiting the ability of judges to protect communities from people who have demonstrated a propensity to violate laws, said Schoharie County Sheriff Ron Stevens.

“Nobody wants to see somebody sit in jail for a nonviolent crime for any length of time because they can’t make bail money,” Stevens said. “That was just wrong. But what’s happened is with bail reform has taken all discretion away from the judges.” The purpose of bail, he said, is to ensure that a person accused of a crime shows up for required court appearances.

Stevens said it would be prudent for state leaders to open a dialogue with law enforcement executives to try to arrive at common ground on what steps could be taken to protect communities and tackle the crime wave.

“What needs to happen is for them to ask us about the problem so that we can come up with a fix,” he said.

But with the bail changes made through the newly adopted state budget, the chances of getting additional amendments through in the remaining months of this year appear slim, said Peter Kehoe, director of the New York State Sheriffs Association.

“A lot of the leverage has gone out of it now that they have the budget,” Kehoe said. “It’s going to e a lot harder to move it another yard or two. But we’re going to try.”

County jail populations have declined steadily since the initial bail changes were approved by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in late 2019, even as crime reports increased in many counties.

The changes made to the bail law now have some lawmakers explaining why they agreed to the alterations after they supported the initial legislation.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, said the Assembly will continue to support policies that ensure “incarceration is for the protection of society and a place for atonement and rehabilitation.”

“While ‘tough on crime’ laws that compromise the civil liberties of all citizens help politicians seem like they are addressing the issue, the most meaningful way to reduce crime is proven to be the provision of the services, resources and education people need before they ever do anything wrong,” Cahill said.

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York succeeded in convincing lawmakers and the governor to approve offering prosecutors $40 million to help them carry out evidence discovery mandates.

The association said the new budget “continues to recognize that New York State’s current bail statute ignores the risk that certain defendants pose to public safety by expanding the real life factors judges will be able to consider when addressing bail.”

With statewide elections looming, veteran Democratic campaign strategist Hank Sheinkopf said crime is likely to remain a front-burner issue across New York.

“What’s happening is people are hearing about crimes in places where they are not expected to occur,” Sheinkopf said. “If the shootings start dropping, then everybody can say: ‘Look what we did!’ But until then it’s a problem.”

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