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Proposed bail compromise roils some Democrats in Albany 

A view of the New York State Capitol

A view of the New York State Capitol seen from the steps of the New York State Education Department Building in Albany. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — A proposal to compromise on New York’s 6-week-old bail law roiled some Democrats Wednesday at the state Capitol and exposed a rift that might impact a range of issues on their 2020 agenda.

At one end of the building’s third floor just outside the state Assembly chamber, some chanted for “No Rollbacks,” denounced their colleagues as “fake” Democrats and said the party should no longer financially support the “five or six” lawmakers who are pushing for bail changes — a not-so-veiled shot at the six Long Island Senate Democrats in swing election districts.

Elsewhere, party members cheered the compromise and said the Democratic-dominated Legislature must tackle the issue soon — as part of the state budget, which is due April 1.

In the middle for now was Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who said it was too soon to make changes but didn’t criticize his colleagues who disagree.

At issue is a plan offered by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), first reported by Newsday, that would overhaul the law, which took effect Jan. 1.

In sum, it would abolish bail altogether while increasing the types of crimes for which a suspect can be held and increasing judges’ authority to do so.

It would somewhat track the federal system in which a defendant is either jailed or monitored by the court system, or is released on his/her own recognizance until a later court date. Detention or monitoring would hinge on the nature of the alleged crime, a history of violence and potential flight risk. Judges would follow tight guidelines to make such determinations.

Either way, money for bail would no longer be part of the equation.

Some activists and lawmakers called the notion of pushing such a compromise as a betrayal. Just last year, they completed a major overhaul of New York’s criminal statutes, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.

Changing the law again so quickly — and giving judges more discretion to possibly detain defendants — was unwarranted and would open the door to more incarceration and “mass surveillance,” they said.

"We can't be bound by five or six members who call themselves Democrats, and yet don't act like Democrats," Assemb. Walter Mosley (D-Brooklyn) said. "We can't be bound by five or six members who want to have the protections and resources of fellow Democrats and yet want to take away resources from the communities we represent."

Those lawmakers "want to take us back in time,” he said, a reference to the Long Island Democratic Senate conference, which has called amending bail laws its No. 1 priority in 2020. One of those legislators rejected the criticism.

“We’re part of this majority. We’ve done a lot to move this state forward. And it’s not just members from Long Island who will support this,” Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Huntington) said. He said the proposal didn’t represent a rollback so much as a modification.

Some progressives lamented that it’s highly likely that bail reform will be rolled into budget talks.

“Unfortunately now, this is part of the budget process,” Assemb. Dan Quart (D-Manhattan) told more than 100 protesters standing outside the Assembly. “It will be up to us to stand tall … No rollbacks! No tweaks!”

But in other hallways, some Democrats welcomed Stewart-Cousins’ proposal. They said the past six weeks showed the 2019 overhaul had eliminated too many crimes from judicial discretion. Too many repeat offenders were being released, they said.

Further, they said the idea to eliminate cash altogether would address the heart of the issue they were trying to solve last year: Bail laws benefitted wealthy suspects who could pay to get out of jail.

“The problem with the old (state) system is people were being remanded on $250 bail because they couldn’t pay it,” said Assemb. Monica Wallace (D-Lancaster), who previously worked as law clerk in federal courts where bail isn’t used.

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) called the Senate proposal a “step forward.”

“The competing interests here are: Bail is unfair because it benefits the wealthy. And the other side is all about public safety, What the Senate is proposing makes a legitimate attempt to address both sides,” said Thiele, who is a member of the Democratic conference despite being an Independence Party member.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo noted the Senate plan closely resembled one he supported last year, though he stopped short of endorsing it. Cuomo had recommended eliminating cash bail altogether, but his version was rejected by progressives because it would have allowed a judge to weigh a suspect’s potential “dangerousness” to the community, which they believed would treat minorities unfairly.

Heastie (D-Bronx) has been vocal about opposing any swift changes to the bail law. He did so again while telling reporters he was concerned about making even more changes that might increase incarceration. He added that six weeks isn’t enough time to collect meaningful data about the new law’s impact.

Asked about the harsh words liberal Democrats had about their moderate colleagues, Heastie said: “This is a very emotional topic … That’s why I’m saying we should be cautious and wait for data.”

Republicans have little sway in Albany because they are in the minority in both houses. But they have been the most vocal in pushing for repeal of the bail law. Assemb. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) called the proposed compromise encouraging and a “good step forward.” Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) dismissed the plan as “nothing more than a fig leaf to cover for the vulnerable Democrats whose constituents want the mess they voted to create repealed.”

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