ALBANY — All eyes now are on the state Assembly when it comes to whether New York’s freshly minted bail law will be changed yet again.
The topic is touchy, enough so that some Democratic legislators don’t want to talk about it until the chamber really has to confront the issue — perhaps only if it becomes part of state budget negotiations in March.
On Thursday at the State Capitol, a number of Democratic Assembly members said they hadn’t seen or studied in detail a proposal forwarded by their Senate counterparts a day earlier to amend the bail law, a proposal that roiled party ranks.
Some flat out didn’t want to discuss the Senate proposal — “I’m not saying anything!” one normally vocal Assembly member said. Others said they know they will have to confront it, but just not now.
“I’m sure we’re going to conference it and at that point we’ll make a decision,” Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood) said, referring to closed-door meetings where legislators hash out what policies they will support as a bloc.
At issue is a proposal advanced by Senate Democrats to amend a law that took effect just six weeks ago.
That law eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies and shortened the time in which prosecutors must share pretrial “discovery” evidence with defense attorneys. By eliminating bail for roughly 90 percent of cases that go through court, advocates said, the law ended discrimination against poorer defendants who couldn’t post bail, sat in jail pretrial and faced more pressure to plea-bargain than wealthier defendants.
But the law immediately came under immense public pressure from law enforcement, Republicans and some moderate Democrats who said the remaining list of bail-eligible charges omitted too many serious crimes and released too many accused criminals who could pose a danger to communities.
In response, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) proposed a compromise. First reported by Newsday, the plan would eliminate bail entirely. A person charged with a crime would either be remanded to jail, electronically monitored or released until a future court date.
But the list of crimes eligible for detention or monitoring would expand from current law to include hate and sex crimes, certain type of domestic violence charges, certain degrees of robbery and any charge involving a fatality.
Stewart-Cousins said the plan would end the debate over cash bail while still giving New York the “most progressive” law on pretrial release and detention in the nation.
The proposal largely models the federal system.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed a similar idea last year, but has stopped short of endorsing the Senate plan.
The Republicans are in the political minority in both houses, so that means the issue will hinge on Assembly Democrats.
Some of the most liberal Democrats rallied with advocates to denounce the Stewart-Cousins proposal as a step backward because it would make more charges subject to remand. Giving judges more discretion to make those decisions too often results in a disproportionate share of minorities held in jail, they said.
“I can’t tell you how disappointed I was this morning to wake up and read the news,” Assemb. Tremaine Wright (D-Brooklyn) said at the rally, while advocates chanted, “No roll backs!” Some called their colleagues fake Democrats.
More quietly, other Democrats welcomed the proposal. Some said it will present Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) with a challenge in balancing a wide range of opinions in the 106-member Democratic conference. One veteran called it a “real split.”
That’s part of why the conference didn’t immediately hold a meeting to discuss the issue, they said. To let things cool for a bit.
But they also know it won’t last long. Some are predicting the Senate and Cuomo will push to include bail amendments in the state budget — tucking controversial policy into the financial plan legislation and school-aid bills is a go-to method in Albany for coalescing support.
April 1 is the deadline for adopting the budget; serious negotiations don’t begin typically until mid-March.
“We need time,” said Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre). Referring to the Senate proposal, she said: “It’s just a news release, so it’s not even a bill. But I have been looking at all ways of solving criminal justice reform in a way that’s pragmatic.”
Heastie considers the 2019 bail legislation a piece of his political legacy, supporters have said. He’s also been the leader most vocal in Albany about resisting the rush to change a law that’s practically brand-new because of what he calls sensationalized stories about a few suspects free on bail committing crimes.
“This law has been in effect six weeks and I think in order to ascertain whether any law that is a transformational change is working, you need real data,” Heastie told reporters. “Not cherry-picked stories and sensationalized events.”