justice

Bail Reform Rollback Battle Rips Rift in Albany

State Assemblyman Joe Lentol (D-Brooklyn) speaks at a rally against changes to bail reform law, Feb. 12, 2020.
State Assemblyman Joe Lentol (D-Brooklyn) speaks at a rally against changes to bail reform law, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo: Photo courtesy of Release Aging People in Prison.

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A top state judicial official on Wednesday joined a growing chorus of government leaders urging lawmakers to modify sweeping bail reforms as the push for revisions exposed a bitter rift among Democrats.

Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks urged New York lawmakers to consider adopting bail reforms enacted three years ago in New Jersey, where judges rely on standardized assessments that gauge each defendant’s risk of future criminal activity.

“If I ruled the world, I’d eliminate bail entirely,” Marks testified in Albany at a joint Assembly and Senate budget hearing. “But you can’t eliminate it unless you allow judges to assess public safety.”

While Marks addressed state lawmakers, criminal justice advocates rallied at the Capitol, delivering passionate pleas against a move by State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) to rework some of the reforms.

“This is a Jim Crow-style rollback that is definitely moving in the wrong direction,” said Assemblymember Tremaine Wright (D-Brooklyn) at the rally.

The clash came days after Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez also cited New Jersey’s model as preferable to New York’s new law, which took effect Jan. 1. New York now forbids pretrial detention for almost all misdemeanor cases and most non-violent felony charges, with the exception of cases of domestic violence, sex crimes and witness intimidation.

Too Soon for Stats

As first reported by Newsday, Stewart-Cousins now proposes a model more like New Jersey’s — where bail would be abolished entirely and judges would follow guidelines to decide when it’s necessary to jail a defendant as a flight risk or threat to public safety.

Advocates are against giving judges any discretion, arguing their decisions will be biased against low-income people of color.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea have blamed bail reform for an increase in some crimes throughout the city this year in January compared to the same period last year.

New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester).
New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester). Photo: andrea.stewartcousins/Facebook

On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the January crime statistics stand out “like a sore thumb.” The repeated arrest and release of a woman charged in a Brooklyn anti-Semitic assault and of an alleged serial bank robber helped fuel pressure to adjust the law.

But advocates contend that the unusually warm winter is a contributing factor and that no judgements should be made based on one month of statistics.

On Wednesday, Marks repeatedly said it is too early to tell whether the automatic pretrial release of defendants has led to more people missing their court dates.

He pointed out that the law allows for electronic monitoring of defendants charged with certain felonies. THE CITY reported last month that the de Blasio administration has struggled to launch such a system in the face of technical and management challenges.

Assembly Rallies Outrage

In the six weeks since the new laws went into effect, once-unified support for reform among the Democratic Party leadership of the state Legislature has splintered.

Assembly leaders were caught by surprise by news of the Senate proposal, opening up a rift between the two houses that have worked in lockstep with each other over the past year to pass a raft of progressive legislation.

“I woke up this morning with more fire in my belly than I have ever had,” Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn), one of the architects of the new bail laws, said at the Capitol rally Wednesday. “We have a departure from the family.”

Roughly a dozen Assembly members, most of whom are part of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus, and dozens of supporters lambasted the Senate’s proposal at the rally

“There is no way on Earth that we can stand here with our heads held high and say that we are now going to allow judges to have formalized ways to use bias and discretion, which really means discrimination, in our courts,” Wright said.

Others assailed their counterparts in the Senate for caving into pressure from law enforcement.

“I don’t need any fake-ass legislators who are allowing fear-mongering to try and go after our people,” said Assemblymember Michael Blake (D-Bronx), who is running for Congress.

Just three Democratic State Senators out of 40 attended the rally, but left as their colleagues bashed the Senate. The Assembly members reserved special ire for their Democratic colleagues who represent suburban districts — some in seats held not long ago by Republicans — and have been calling for changes to the new bail laws.

“They want to go back and transform [it into] bulls–t legislation,” said Assemblymember Walter Mosley (D-Brooklyn).

“We can’t be bound by five or six members who call themselves Democrats, and yet don’t act like Democrats,” Mosley told the crowd.

“We have come too far,” said activist Darryl Herring at the rally. “We will not go back to the dark ages. If you don’t like it, we voted you in, we will vote you out!”

Scaling back the bail reforms would be a tough sell for New York City’s Democratic senators who make up a bulk of the conference where 32 votes are needed to pass bills, Capitol observers pointed out.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) said he “was not surprised” by the Senate’s walkback, pointing out Stewart-Cousins’ already expressed concerns about the new bail laws. He declared it “too early” to consider changes.

“The law’s only been in effect six weeks and I think in order to ascertain whether any law that is a transformational change is working, you need real data, real information,” Heastie told reporters. “Not cherry-picked stories and sensationalized events to try to paint a picture as to whether the law is working or not.”

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