A debate over the extent to which New York's criminal justice laws should be changed — balanced against concerns over crime and public safety — is once again dominating the budget negotiations in Albany.
Measures to address crime, but also create a more equitable system of criminal justice in New York, is part of the push and pull in the state budget talks with less than two weeks to go before the April 1 deadline.
"If we don't address crime here in New York state now, when are we going to do it?" state Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said.
Democratic state lawmakers have rejected Gov. Kathy Hochul's calls to make bail law changes and in the state Senate are backing a measure to seal many criminal records known as the Clean Slate Act. Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt calls that the wrong approach.
"The current one-house doesn't make communities safer, it also has a resolution advancing Clean Slate, an issue our conference strongly opposes because of the public safety needs for New Yorkers," Ortt said.
Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who sponsors the measure, says the measure is meant to ensure people who have paid their debt to society can obtain a job or housing. Lawmakers have altered the bill to address concerns raised over convicted sex offenders as well as educational licensing.
"We've made several changes based on feedback we've received to make sure that it is as strong as possible getting people to work and getting housing," she said.
The proposal has stalled in recent years as Albany has been engulfed over debates surrounding the cashless bail law and other criminal justice changes.
"The bill unfortunately got lost in the criminal justice reform conversation, but we've always maintained this is a jobs bill, this is a housing bill, this is an economic development bill," Cruz said.
Crime has declined in the early weeks of 2023 in New York, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has called for a wider ranging approach on the issue to address mental health and housing.
"Study after study is showing bail reform is not the driver of crime. People are safe, but people don't feel safe and I still think that's something we have to figure out," Heastie said.
And as the budget talks continue, advocates like Lisa Schreibersdorf of Brooklyn Defender Services says a boost in funding for public defenders is also needed alongside prosecutors. Hochul has backed more funding for local district attorneys to help enact measures like processing evidence in criminal cases on a faster basis.
"The things that apply to the DAs apply equally to the defenders," she said. "We have the same issues with low pay, the same issues with attrition."