Changes to how New York’s bail laws work have courted growing controversy over the last four years – and are coming to a head in the state budget talks this month.
Top Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Kathy Hochul are trying to thread a delicate needle: Making changes to a 2019 law that ended cash bail requirements for many criminal charges without undermining the original intent of the measure to ensure low-income people accused of crimes are not unfairly languishing in jail awaiting trial.
Opponents of the measure have contended it has made the state less safe, pointing to polling that has shown voters do not like the law and are increasingly worried about crime and public safety in their own communities.
That's a premise top Democratic lawmakers in the state Legislature have rejected.
"A simple answer is, oh, you made a change and you shouldn’t have done it," Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said. "But that’s not the right answer."
On Tuesday, Stewart-Cousins said she, along with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the governor, are close to a general agreement on a change that could make it easier for judges to set cash bail requirements for defendants facing serious criminal charges.
Hochul has called for "clarity" in order to make it easier for judges to require cash bail for cases in which defendants are facing serious charges.
"What the governor has tried to do and what we certainly don’t mind doing is making sure that people understand and judges understand they have discretion if there’s some confusion about that," Stewart-Cousins said.
But the path forward is unclear. Polls have shown the law is unpopular with voters, who are also worried about crime in the state. Hochul faced a tough election battle a year ago in which the bail law was a flashpoint. But Heasite this week said officials are trying to tread carefully.
"You actually have to walk through the process," Heastie said. "This is real life situations. This is peoples’ lives."
The measure was approved alongside a suite of criminal justice law changes that sought to address defendants' timely access to evidence and ensure they receive a fast trial.
Democratic Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, the sponsor of the original bail law, believes unwinding it would also put additional changes to the criminal justice system out of whack.
"We did bail, we did discovery reform and we did speedy trial," Walker said. "They are cousins, they have to flow and walk together."
And she’s skeptical of claims judges need more clarity with how to follow the law as it currently stands.
"As judges, they are some of the most educated and elite amongst people in the law and they have amazing court attorneys who can do the type of research that is necessary to clarify for them what exactly is meant by the least restrictive means," she said.
Last year, Hochul was able to secure changes to the law that were initially negotiated in secret during the budget talks. Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to expand circumstances in which bail could be required.
But despite an election season that in part hinged on voters' perception around crime, Hochul spoke little about the bail changes — to the private frustration of some Democratic lawmakers.
This year Hochul has made the bail law changes a clear priority for her in the budget, and has said she would not sign off on a final agreement without her desired amendments in place.
Republicans, meanwhile, have continued to call for a full repeal of the measure. State Sen. Steve Rhoads says a complete do-over is needed that addresses both fairness and public safety.
"I would like to see a full repeal of the 2019 law and actually create reasonable bail reforms, consulting with law enforcement, consulting with advocate groups, coming up with a comprehensive plan that works and actually keeps the public safe," Rhoads said.