A pair of local elected officials have unveiled new legislation that, if passed, would revert some aspects of the sweeping criminal justice reforms set to take effect in New York state in January.
Speaking from Clifton Park on Monday, state Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, and state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, announced a bipartisan bill they said “strikes a balance on providing bail reform while allowing greater judicial discretion to ensure public safety.”
The criminal justice system changes that were approved by the New York state Legislature earlier this year not only include bail reform, but will also allow most defendants charged with either low-level or nonviolent crimes to be released after their arraignment without having to post bail.
Instead, the Tedisco and Santabarbara bill would let a judge make an “appropriate risk assessment based on a defendant’s prior felony convictions, a failure to make a court appearance, or a subsequent arrest while awaiting a preliminary hearing or trial.”
“They say discretion is the better part of valor. Let’s give some discretion back to New York’s judges to keep New Yorkers safe,” said Tedisco, who is also sponsoring legislation for a full repeal of the law, in a statement.
“We support criminal justice reform to help reduce recidivism and turn people’s lives around, but that can’t be done at the expense of public safety.”
“This bill can help address one of the major reasons I voted no on the bail reform package the governor has now signed into law,” said Santabarbara, who voted down the original reform bill.
“Any reform package should allow judges to hold offenders that pose a danger to others based on the seriousness of each crime and prior offenses. Keeping our communities safe is a continuing challenge and our police departments and law enforcement agencies work at that challenge every day. While I fully support responsible bail reform, and agree there’s no reason to hold non-violent minor offenders who pose no danger to public safety on cash bail, as legislators we cannot lose sight of what it takes to keep crime down.”
Other local officials have come out in support of returning those discretionary powers back to judges, including Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple and Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo.
However, other local advocates and lawyers feel such measures are nothing more than a way to make sure the current bail system stays in place. The cash bail system now, they say, typically targets lower income people who can’t afford to pay even minimum bail fines, and the time to act and not look back has already come.
“We cannot wait to reform a system that has deprived innocent people of their freedom simply because they are too poor to afford bail,” said Jamaica Miles, state organizing and training director of Citizen Action of New York.
“The reality is that these changes will make our communities safer and stronger by ending the mass incarceration that feeds the cycle of poverty and violence. This legislation would undermine those goals and erase the voices of impacted communities and allies who have fought so hard to achieve justice.”
Miles is a lifelong resident of Schenectady.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Brendan Keller of the Schenectady County Office of public Defender.
Brendan Keller, deputy chief assistant public defender at the Schenectady County Public Defender’s Office, echoed Miles’ concerns that any roll-back would be catastrophic for the majority of his clients, who are often unable to post cash bail and sometimes even forgo defense or trial, instead moving forward with a plea to avoid a lengthy stay in jail.
“The vast majority of our clients couldn’t afford more than nominal bail,” he said. He countered that discretion, which the rollback bills all seek to return to judges, is this issue itself. The bail reforms, he added, are an opportunity to move away from a criminal justice system that he called “punitive” to one that might be more focused on rehabilitating.
“The reason we need the bail reform is because discretion is regularly abused,” he said. “This really boils down to a fundamental question we have to ask as a society: What is our criminal justice system designed to do?” he said.