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Assembly Democrats laying low on bail law debate, for now

The state Senate and Assembly are taking different

The state Senate and Assembly are taking different approaches in reacting to the state bail reform controversy.   Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The intensifying debate over bail reform is playing out in different ways at the New York State Senate and Assembly, even though both are controlled by Democrats.

In the Senate, they are wrestling with the law already, even though it is just three weeks old. The statute means suspects arrested on most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies can no longer be held on bail. Championed by progressives, the law has sparked a backlash by law enforcement and Republicans.

In response, Senate Democrats are proposing rollback laws, meeting with prosecutors and progressive groups to look for common ground on possible tweaks, and putting together an ad hoc group of lawmakers to possibly arrive at a policy statement.

The Assembly is cooling its heels.

No bills, no closed-door debates, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) says it’s too early to consider changes.

But rank-and-file members say they know it’s a matter of time before they will be faced with a push from moderate Democrats.

“It’s here. It just hasn’t surfaced yet,” said one veteran liberal Democrat when asked about the pulse of the Assembly on the bail issue. “But it’s foolish to think it won’t come here.”

The lawmaker said many expect it to come up in negotiation of the state budget, which is due April 1, though that doesn’t necessarily mean Assembly leaders will agree to any changes. Some might push for other criminal justice/law enforcement changes — such as revising “50-a,” the state law that prevents the release of police disciplinary records.

“I’m sure some members want to talk about it,” Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), chairman of the Codes Committee, which handles criminal justice legislation.

Asked why he believes there hasn’t been a flurry of action yet on his side of the State Capitol, Lentol said: “I think members of the Assembly, having been through things like this, are more experienced at taking a wait-and-see approach. Before we embark upon changing a law that’s been in effect three weeks, we need to see how it’s working.”

Democrats have firm majority in each house: 40-23 in the Senate, 106-42 in the Assembly. But their Senate ranks is filled with first-term legislators who helped them in 2018 end the Republicans’ long-running hold on the chamber. Lawmakers generally are considered vulnerable in their first run for reelection, especially in suburban districts.

Four of those freshmen senators are from Long Island and they’re the ones leading the push for their fellow Democrats to reconsider bail. That makes a difference in how the discussion is playing out so far, one lawmaker said.

“The same regional tensions are here. But the leverage is not the same,” Assemb. Fred Thiele, an Independence Party member from Sag Harbor who is aligned with Democrats in the chamber.

Democrats in Long Island’s Assembly delegation have varying views.

Assemb. Taylor Darling (D-Hempstead) noted the new law was meant to address a “broken criminal justice system,” referring to advocates’ arguments that poor people were more likely to linger in jail and face pressure to plea bargain than defendants able to post bail. She said lawmakers have to be “mindful of the consequences” of the new law, while being aware “some people are using it as a political issue to flip the Senate over” to Republican control.

“There’s a real firestorm about bail reform in Nassau County,” Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre) said. She would like the law to be edited a “little bit,” to allow “give judges discretion when they can make a difference.”

The idea of allowing a judge to require bail if he or she believes a suspect poses a danger to the community is something prosecutors have requested and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo initially championed last year. But some Democrats think that will result in minorities being locked up disproportionately compared to white suspects.

“It’s certainly worth looking at. But the problem is, we have a long history of judges perceiving danger mostly from people of color,” said Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), a retired Suffolk County police officer. He added the idea “will be discussed in conference,” referring to Democrats’ closed-door strategy meetings.

Said Ramos: “We need to weed through what is fact and what is fiction” about how the law is playing out.

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