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Hochul presses for more revisions to New York's bail reform laws

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Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will press the state Legislature to adopt her plan to further revise the state’s controversial bail reform laws.

But legislative leaders remain reluctant to make more changes without better data on the law’s true effects.

The 2019 law ended many forms of cash bail, and critics believe that’s contributed to a crime spike. They say the statute needs to be amended to allow judges more discretion if they believe that a defendant might be dangerous if they are released before their trial without having to post bond.

Hochul — whose opponent in the closely contested governor’s race last November made the bail reform laws a campaign issue — is responding to the criticisms.

In her State of the State message, she proposed revisions to the law to make it easier for judges to set bail for more “serious crimes.” She offered more details on Tuesday.

“The judge should have more discretion,” Hochul said. “And be able to consider more factors than simply whether or not the individual is likely to return to court when they are required to.”

Hochul said the way the statute is written creates conflicts for judges. The law requires that judges must consider what are known as “the least restrictive means” that are necessary to ensure that a defendant returns for their court date.

But another part of the law, amended in 2022, permits judges to consider other factors when deciding whether to set bail. They include whether the alleged crime included the use or possession of a handgun, or if domestic violence was involved.

“We have an inconsistency in the law right now,” Hochul told reporters.

Hochul said the proposed tweaks to the law do not undermine the “fundamental premise” behind bail reform, which is to prevent people from long stays in jail simply because of income inequality and their inability to pay for bail.

“Individuals accused of low-level crimes, petty crimes, should not have to be sitting in Rikers Island for three years awaiting their day in court,” Hochul said. “That is the injustice that the original bail reforms sought to go after.”

Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, are reluctant to sign on to further revisions of the law.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said the original law was limited to ending bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. She said judges have always had the ability to impose bail for people accused of more serious crimes.

Stewart-Cousins said a Jan. 30 hearing on the effects of the law will provide more clarity.

“Our committees will be having a joint hearing to go over data,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We will have some context to begin to discuss what, if anything, should be done.”

Sen. Zellnor Myrie is one of several progressive-leaning senators who would need to back Hochul’s proposed changes for the bail reform revisions to be approved.

Myrie said he’s reserving judgment on the proposal for now, but he said any efforts to curb crime must also include plans to lift more people out of poverty.

“Any discussion on public safety should also be including prevention of crime, should be attacking the root causes of crime,” Myrie said. “Giving people a job, housing, educational opportunities.”

Myrie is the sponsor of a measure known as Clean Slate, which would seal the conviction records for people found guilty of nonviolent crimes and who have completed their time in prison or on parole. He said it would eliminate barriers to housing and employment that many people with criminal records face.

But he said he’s reluctant to change the laws to respond to what he says are “anecdotes and fear tactics” by opponents of bail reform.

Republicans, who are in the minority party in both houses, said Hochul’s proposal does not go far enough, and that the entire law should be repealed.

Among them is Sen. Tom O’Mara, who is a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and is also on the Judiciary and Codes committees.

“It’s a step in the right direction, a small step,” O’Mara said. “I don’t think that’s going to be enough to reverse this dangerous trend that we have going on today.”

The governor will have some leverage to get her proposal approved by the Legislature during the upcoming budget season. Last year, the governor held up the spending plan for nine days after the due date, until reluctant lawmakers finally acquiesced and agreed to some bail reform changes.

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Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.