Some Democrats are open to changes, while progressives push back
Cayla Harris, Times Union
BALLSTON SPA – Republican state lawmakers have been railing New York’s bail reforms for almost a year.
It’s not anything new. The reforms were passed last April, and legislators were talking about them for months before that. But the recent media cycle would suggest that the changes – which, starting Jan. 1, eliminated cash bail and pre-trial detention for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies – are brand new and suddenly drawing ire.
Nearly every week for the past two months, Republicans have held multiple press conferences across the state assailing the reforms. On Monday, just two days before the start of the 2020 legislative session, that push was evident: At 1:30 p.m., state GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy held a bitter news conference at the Capitol, where he called the changes “an assault on civilized society.” He called on the Democrats in control of state government to immediately repeal the laws and work on crafting new legislation that he said would be forged with more input from law enforcement and not endanger society.
“These strip elected judges of the ability to determine threat levels to public safety,” Langworthy said. “[Democrats] handcuffed our prosecutors, muzzled crime victims and empowered criminals in the court.”
An hour later, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, opened a roundtable event on mental health in law enforcement by touching on the reforms, which she said are “fundamentally flawed.”
In a state where Democrats control both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor’s office, Republicans are latching onto bail reform as their top legislative issue heading back into session. In the weeks leading up to the reforms’ effective date, GOP legislators said murderers, sex offenders and other dangerous criminals would head back into their communities.
Now, less than a week into 2020, they have names and faces to attach to their cries.
Take 52-year-old Paul Barbaritano, for example: an Albany man charged with choking and stabbing a woman to death last July, who was charged with manslaughter and released Jan. 1. Or 22-year-old Gerard Conway, who police had arrested last week for burglarizing four Long Island businesses and released under the new law – only for him to break into another store less than a day later.
“We’ve seen, as it’s been implemented, that there’s an understanding that it was rushed and it simply doesn’t take into consideration the safety of our community,” Stefanik told reporters Monday.
Different GOP members have called for different solutions, with some saying the bail reform should be repealed entirely, while others have called for amendments. The most popular proposals have suggested offering judges more discretion and adding some offenses to the list of bail-eligible crimes.
Even some Democrats have said they’re open to changes: New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio said last week that he supports giving judges the ability to gauge whether someone is a danger to the community and set bail accordingly. In recent days, both Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have suggested that they are open to reviewing the law and perhaps tweaking it slightly.
On Monday morning at an event in Manhattan, Cuomo characterized the new statutes as “a work in progress” and acknowledged that changes are needed and there are “consequences that we have to adjust for.”
But some of the staunchest supporters of the bail reform have stood by the changes, arguing that the bail system had criminalized poverty and that those who could afford bail would be released anyway. Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris held a phone call with reporters early Monday to dispel myths about the law and dismiss the “fear-mongering” that he says Republicans have embraced.
In an interview Monday afternoon, Gianaris said the previous system only worked for people who had “a big enough checkbook” to pay their way out of detainment, and the reforms help make the system more equitable for people without the means to pay bail. He said the few days the laws have been in effect have only produced anecdotes, not data, and Republicans have capitalized on tragedies to push a “sensational” narrative.
“The bail reforms for violent crimes have still left things the way they are, but for the lower-level crimes that don’t have violence, it’s unfair to have the poor penalized while the rich are at home in their communities,” he said.