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LI Senate Democrats say amending bail reform is top 2020 priority

Minority leader John Flanagan at Brookhaven Town Hall

Minority leader John Flanagan at Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville on Jan. 6, 2020. Credit: Randee Daddona

ALBANY — A top Democrat on Thursday said amending the state's newly minted bail law will be the “No. 1” priority of Long Island’s Democratic Senate delegation.

“It is our top priority,” said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a former federal prosecutor and dean of the Island's Senate Democrats. “We are right now working on doing that and certainly will continue to do so until it is accomplished.”

Pushing to roll back the bail law could rile tensions between moderate and liberal Democrats who control the State Legislature.

It was one of several developments on the first regular day of the 2020 session of the State Legislature that made clear the bail law will be grist for the November elections and could be tied eventually into state budget negotiations, as many contentious issues are in New York.

Also on Thursday, the Senate's top Republican, John Flanagan of East Northport, saw his effort to repeal the law voted down on technical grounds, but vowed to “hammer this issue every single day.”

At the same time, some Democrats were finalizing rollback proposals, and unveiled one to allow judges to determine bail on most crimes.

Pushing back, leaders of the Senate and Assembly called it much too soon to consider changes in the law, which took effect Jan. 1.

Under the statute, bail cannot be required for people charged with most misdemeanors and non-sex-related crimes. Bail can still be set for felonies and violent crimes.

Lawmakers approved it last spring, with backers hailing it as one of a number of major progressive accomplishments by the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. 

But district attorneys, law enforcement officials and many Republicans from around the state have protested, saying the list of bail-exempt charges is too large.

Recently, Cuomo and Democratic state chairman Jay Jacobs have said the bail law should be revisited. Jacobs, who also leads the Nassau County Democratic Committee, has said the issue could make suburban Democrats vulnerable in this year's elections.

“We’re going to hammer this every single day,” Flanagan, the Senate minority leader, told reporters before the Senate opened proceedings Thursday, the day after Cuomo formally kicked off the session with the annual State of the State address.

Flanagan tried to force a vote to repeal the law. But he attached it as a “hostile amendment” to an unrelated bill regarding voter registration. His measure was voted down on technical grounds, along party lines.

After the Senate adjourned for the day, Long Island Democratic senators said they were working on a handful of proposals to amend the bail law.

Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport)  said he was tweaking a bill he introduced last year that would add manslaughter and other charges to the list of bail-eligible crimes.

Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) introduced a bill Thursday that would allow judges to hold someone in jail pretrial if the person is deemed dangerous.

“We took away discretion and we definitely need to allow discretion back in,” the first-term senator said.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said nine days is nowhere near enough to determine how the law is working.

They said the change was made to level the court system, arguing that well-off defendants shouldn't be able to get out on bail while low-income ones linger in jail and face pressure to plea bargain.

Heastie said uneven use of judicial discretion was part of the rationale for change.

“When two people were charged with the same crime end up with different bails, that gives me pause on judicial discretion,” Heastie said.

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