New York's Limit on Cash Bail Stirring Controversy Across Communities
The daily drumbeat of news stories about the release of inmates from county jails and new cases leading simply to appearance tickets for those accused of serious crimes has some supporters of the law saying it needs to be readdressed.
Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y.
By Joseph Spector
ALBANY -- A man accused of manslaughter for choking and stabbing a woman to death in Albany was set to be released last week without bail under New York's new criminal justice laws.
In Harlem, a man who allegedly hit and killed a pedestrian while driving drunk was released without bail because of the new state law that ends cash bail for misdemeanors and many non-violent felonies.
In Rochester, a man convicted a decade ago of shooting a Rochester police officer was released on new drug charges without bail.
And in Poughkeepsie, a man once convicted of manslaughter was set to be freed on new charges of felony aggravated DWI as he awaits trial, the district attorney said.
Across New York, law-enforcement officials are deriding a new law that took effect Jan. 1 that limits the use of cash bail, saying dangerous people are being let out as they await the adjudication of their cases.
They want lawmakers to revisit the law during this legislative session.
You're saying that manslaughter -- people who are charged with manslaughter -- should be released back into the community pending trial," Albany County District Attorney David Soares told Spectrum News.
"Did You Really Mean That?"
Advocates of the new law said for too long poor people were arrested, mainly minorities, and held on cash bail awaiting trial, while people with money were able to post bail and be free -- creating an inequitable system.
In the Albany manslaughter case, lawyers said the man was in a consensual relationship with the woman, and he accidentally stabbed her while trying to cut a belt from her neck, the Times Union reported.
Supporters of the law said it will make communities safer by returning accused people back into their communities rather than have them sitting in jail awaiting trial.
After decades of stalled progress, New York finally enacted a series of common-sense pretrial reforms that will make our communities safer and fairer," said Khalil Cumberbatch, a strategist for New Yorkers United for Justice, an advocacy group.
But the daily drumbeat of news stories about the release of inmates from county jails and new cases leading simply to appearance tickets for those accused of serious crimes has some supporters of the law saying it needs to be readdressed.
"I think there is real agreement that the bail reform law needs to be amended," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week.
"There is a chance now for the Legislature to get it right. They did some very good reforms, but there's also things that need to be done."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office said late Friday it would support adding hate crimes to the list of bailable offenses and would discuss other potential changes during the session.
"The law went into legal effect two days ago to fix a broken justice system which favored the rich and criminalized poverty by incarcerating those awaiting trial based on whether or not you can afford to pay bail," Rich Azzopardi, senior advisor to Cuomo, said.
"The system's reforms are no doubt a work in progress -- which we will be discussing this session."
Reforms Draw Criticism
The ending of cash bail for many charges comes amid a surge in hate crimes in the New York City area, leading to questions about whether hate crimes that are deemed nonviolent will lead to those accused being released on their own recognizance.
Most of the anti-Semitic incidents in New York City -- eight over a recent weeklong stretch -- did not include bail, the New York Post reported.
The cases have led some supporters of stronger laws against hate crimes to reconsider the new criminal-justice reforms.
With Cuomo at his side last Sunday, Rockland County Sheriff Louis Falco urged him to reconsider the cash bail changes after five people were stabbed in an anti-Semitic attack in Monsey.
While the Monsey attacker is being held on $5 million bail, Falco said lesser hate-crime arrests should still have bail.
I didn't make any bones about it when I said to him, you know, we've had these new criminal-justice reforms and part of the criminal-justice reforms, there's hate crimes where there's no bail," Falco, a fellow Democrat, said about Cuomo during a media briefing.
In particular, law-enforcement officials said one of the reform's major failings is that it doesn't give judges discretion to assess the dangerousness of the accused and whether releasing them would be a threat to the community.
New Jersey, for instance, also limits cash bail, but it gives judges the ability to evaluate each case based on the circumstances, not solely the statute.
"My position was and still is that judges under certain circumstances still should have the discretion to set bail," Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady said.
"Not to give them any discretion, especially on domestic-violence cases, was either shortsighted or irresponsible on the part of the legislators who put this new law into place."
In one case in Orange County, the court is trying to decide whether a man charged with making a terroristic threat against a high school can be released without bail.
The statute seems inconsistent, said Robert Conflitti, counsel to the Orange County district attorney.
We're certainly seeing inconsistencies in the statute; inconsistencies in the way it is going to be applied," Conflitti said. "It is going to take to some time to interpret just what it looks like."
Are Changes Possible?
Two events are happening at the same time with the law.
The courts are deciding which inmates currently being held on cash bail need to be released. They are also dealing with new arrests and deciding whether the statute requires accusers to be released without bail.
In recent weeks, counties were estimating about 3,800 inmates would need to be released who were already in jail awaiting trial, a survey by the USA TODAY Network New York found.
In New York City alone, 20,000 more people would have been released in 2018 without bail if the law was on the books, according to a report in September from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Some lawmakers have introduced changes to the law, which was passed last June and signed by Cuomo.
Sen. James Tedisco, a Republican, and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, a Democrat, are from the Albany area and pressing for the passage of their bill, which would give judges more flexibility in deciding whether to set bail.
Tedisco wants legislators to pass the measure next week, noting even the liberal de Blasio sees need for change.
The bill would allow the courts to make a risk assessment of a defendant's prior convictions and flight risk.
"Mayor de Blasio must be seeing clearly in 2020," Tedisco said in a statement.
Giving judges more discretion on bail to protect the public should be the first legislation that gets passed when the legislature returns to Albany next week."
Meanwhile, police are making their opposition known.
In Colonie, an Albany suburb, police wrote on Facebook on Dec. 31 that a man arrested for an alleged bank robbery was released on his own recognizance.
The suspect had already served two federal prison stints for bank robberies in 2005 and 2010, the police said.
Its statement ended: "Happy New Year everyone! Especially happy for our most recent bank robber."
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