Cuomo Weighing Changes To Contentious Bail Reforms

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Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks at the Long Island Blue Wave Rally Nov. 4, 2018.
(Photo courtesy of Governor Andrew Cuomo via Flickr)

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said he is considering ways to amend the law ending cash bail for non-violent offenders enacted throughout the state at the start of the year after a spate of criticism from public officials about the reforms to the state’s bail system.

“Reform is an ongoing process,” Cuomo said in a Jan. 21 address outlining plans for the state’s 2021 budget. “It’s not that you reform a system once and then walk away. You make a change in a system, it has consequences. And you have to understand those consequences.”

The reforms were passed as part of the state’s 2020 fiscal year budget on the basis that jails throughout New York could save around $200 million in total by not having to pay for the staffing and needs a more crowded jail system produces. Judges are now prohibited from setting cash bail in nearly all misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, with exceptions in cases like sexual abuse and terrorism charges. Nassau County released 29 people detained in county’s East Meadow jail on Jan. 1 in accordance with the change.

Proponents of ending cash-based pretrial detention, including the ACLU, say the system unfairly discriminates against people who cannot afford bail money.

“Poorer Americans and people of color often can’t afford to come up with money for bail, leaving them stuck in jail awaiting trial, sometimes for months or years,” the ACLU website reads. “Meanwhile, wealthy people accused of the same crime can buy their freedom and return home.”

Since the reforms were implemented, they’ve been the subject of criticism from politicians and law enforcement officials across the state, who have pointed to cases like that of Tiffany Harris, who was arrested for allegedly attacking a woman in Prospect Heights three days after she was released without bail after allegedly attacking three Jewish women in Brooklyn, as evidence that the reforms compromise public safety.

“If someone makes a terrorist threat, they’re going to be let out without bail,” Nassau County Legislator John Ferretti said. “They’ll be arraigned and told to come back. Selling weapons on school grounds is another one. Bail is intended to be meant as collateral to keep people from coming back when they’re supposed to go to trial for the crime they allegedly committed. As an attorney and a citizen, I think it’s outrageous and heinous.”

Public opinion on ending cash bail has changed sharply since the reforms were enacted. A January poll from the Siena College Research Institute found that 49 percent of respondents feel the reforms were bad for New York, compared to 37 percent who think they benefit the state and 10 percent who said they were unsure. When the institute polled New Yorkers on the same question last April, 55 percent of people who responded said they were in favor of the reforms, while 38 percent were opposed.

—Additional reporting by Joseph Wolkin

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