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Cuomo seeks to change new law that ends bail in most cases, but criticized for releasing suspects

Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his State of the

Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany, NY Wednesday Jan. 8, 2020 Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday said he will seek to change a three-week-old law that ends bail for misdemeanors and the lowest-level felonies, but which has been criticized for releasing some suspects who were arrested again on felonies including burglary, bank robbery and drunken driving in a fatal crash upstate.

In his 2020-21 budget address, Cuomo said he will use the extraordinary leverage he has over the legislature in the budget process to “make the decisions we have to make, and we will do that in the coming weeks.”

Under state budget law, Cuomo has authority over the legislature in budget negotiations because, if an April 1 deadline is missed, the governor can impose his policy proposals in a budget. The legislature is left with the choice of approving that budget in total, or rejecting it in total and risk shutting down government.

The bail law aims to end the practice of suspects being held for months in jail awaiting trial only because they were too poor to post bail. The law ends bail for misdemeanors and the lowest-level felonies that the law deems to lack violent intent.

“Reform is an ongoing process,” said Cuomo, who signed the bill into law April 1 in a budget deal with the Democratic-led legislature. More than a year ago, Cuomo initially sought more discretion for judges to hold suspects if they posed a danger to commit more offenses or violence. But those points didn’t make it into the negotiated final bill. On Tuesday, he gave no details of what changes he will seek now.

“We need to respond to the facts, but not the politics and we need to act on information and not hyperbole,” Cuomo said.

That hyperbole, Cuomo said, includes repeated statements by Republicans who opposed the measure, including state Republican chairman Nick Langworthy, who said Democrats “have blood on their hands.” 

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said her conference will discuss changes in the law with Cuomo. Separately, senators are meeting with prosecutors and supporters of the measure this week.

“The opportunity to change the system makes sense to me,” she said. “We’re not a ‘one and done’ … so I’m glad the governor wants to have a discussion.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) has been the strongest opponent of changes to the law his members spearheaded. He has previously said it was too early to consider changes.

“What’s today’s date?” he said Tuesday. “It’s day 21. Next question.”

Locally, a fatal drunken driving crash has brought confusion over bail reform to the forefront. Last week, the state Office of Court Administration confirmed that a Suffolk County judge misinterpreted the state's new bail law when he denied a prosecutor's request to place suspect Jordan Randolph under electronic monitoring following his arraignment. 

The drumbeat by critics of the law made headlines statewide.

A poll released Tuesday found a big swing in the public’s view of the new law. In April when the law was passed, voters thought the measure would be good for the state, by 55% to 38%; but that view has flipped to 49% to 37% who say the law is bad for the state.

    The view is more severe among suburban voters, which includes Long Island and Westchester County, two key political battlegrounds this legislative election year. The poll found 64 percent of downstate suburban voters think the law is bad, after a slight majority supported the law in April, when it was passed. 

Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) has already proposed changes to the law.

“I’m very hopeful,” Gaughran said Tuesday after a closed-door meeting with the Democratic majority. “I’m hopeful there will be change, which is to give judges more discretion.”

Republicans in the Senate and Assembly minorities going into this year’s elections have repeatedly held press conferences opposing the law since last spring.

“Now is not the time for small tweaks or minor changes to this new law,” said Senate Republican leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). “Democrats should admit they made a grave mistake and swiftly join us in repealing bail reform now."

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