Changes to New York's law that ended cash bail requirements for many criminal charges can be changed to bolster public safety while also keeping the criminal justice system fair, Gov. Kathy Hochul wrote in an op/ed released on Wednesday.
At the same time, top lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly signaled their Democratic-led chambers would be willing to consider some changes to the law, but insisted they did not want to a full scaling back of the law meant to keep poor people and people of color from waiting lengthy periods of time in local jails.
The op/ed from Hochul, co-written with her lieutenant governor Brian Benjamin, comes as legislators are considering a $216 billion budget proposal that is due next week. The Legislature is weighing a menu of criminal justice and public safety provisions, but the controversy over the bail law has seized the attention of officials at the state Capitol.
"We are committed to protecting the progress we’ve made toward a fairer criminal justice system," Hochul and Benjamin wrote in the op/ed. "But that is not at odds with making thoughtful, measured changes to our laws that would strengthen public safety."
Hochul's proposal, initially a 10-point plan leaked last week, was laid out with three broad points in the op/ed, which appeared on The Daily News' website. It is the most expansive the governor's office has been on the bail issue since the proposal presented to lawmakers leaked last week.
The proposal includes addressing repeat offenders who are on pre-trial release — a provision that had been floated earlier this month by former Assemblyman Joe Lentol. At the same time, the plan calls for setting bail for felony cases involving gun charges, including when illegal guns are sold or given to those under the age of 18.
And Hochul wants to make it possible for judges to set "more restrictive pretrial conditions" for violent criminal charges and charges that involve guns.
By addressing guns as well as repeat offenses, the proposal seeks to walk a fine line for what Democrats in the state Legislature could potentially accept as a broader agreement on the issue.
Top Democratic leaders have insisted they do not want to roll back the 2019 measure, passed as part of a broader effort to reform the state's criminal justice system.
A rise in violent crime over the last year in New York has driven efforts to make changes, however. Supporters of the law have disputed the rise in crime is linked to the bail issue, noting crime has risen across the country.
But public safety has remained a top issue for voters over the last several weeks, according to publicly available polling.
Democratic lawmakers have discussed potential changes such as clearly outlining to judges how bail can or cannot be set, as well as providing more efforts to aid those who are in a mental health crisis. An expansion of a law meant to require people in a mental health crisis to receive treatment has not been rejected.
And tackling illegal guns in New York has been a priority for many lawmakers as well as Hochul this year.
"We're just really trying to get the different points. I think the general sense is nobody in our conference wants to go backwards, absolutely not," said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "But I've always said about the conference we're always trying to make sure what we do hits the mark. We're not a one-and-done conference. We're always willing to listen to ideas."
But that could give Democrats significant wiggle room in the negotiations. Lawmakers have rejected a "dangerousness" standard be applied to defendants when setting bail, arguing that can unfairly target people of color.
And getting to all 10 points as outlined by Hochul's office could be difficult, Stewart-Cousins said.
"All 10 points would be hard," she said.
The budget is expected to pass by next Friday, the start of the state's fiscal year. For lawmakers to avoid having the governor issue a waiver for the required three-day aging process for bills, agreements would have to be reached by early next week.
If a deal on bail is reached, it could be part of a major package of criminal justice and public safety measures that include more funding for evidentiary discovery, juvenile justice law changes and a bill that would seal many criminal records of people who completed their sentences.
"I think that's the major thing and members just want to know, members just want to have the discussion and not just feel rushed into doing things," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said.
Heastie in a question-and-answer session with reporters repeatedly pointed to events like one this month in New York City, in which a man smeared feces on the face of a woman.
"There are deeper things going on here and I think sometimes those things are getting addressed," he said.
Discussions surrounding the bail law changes are taking place as all 213 seats in the state Legislautre, as well as the governor, are up for election this year. Republicans have blasted the bail law currently on the books and have signaled public safety will be a major focus of the campaign season.
Heastie has pointedly rejected characterizations his large Democratic conference doesn't care about public safety concerns.
"Our opponents are going to say we're soft on crime, we don't care about victims," he said. "That's all bulls---. We care about having safe communities. I hate when people try to politicize these things."
Advocates for the initial bail law have remained ardently opposed to any changes. Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the civil rights campaign director with the group VOCAL-NY, said Hochul's plan is effectively "punting on public safety" and would result in more people in jail.
"It's saying we don't want to actually do the work to address these issues, so we are just going to throw some people in jail and say we did something," he said.