Montgomery County

Montgomery County Legislature to take stance against state bail reform

Montgomery County Office Building is seen off Broadway in Fonda.
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Montgomery County Office Building is seen off Broadway in Fonda.

The Montgomery County Legislature is poised to take a stand against provisions in bail reform laws calling on state lawmakers to return discretion to judges in bail decisions.

The Legislature will consider a resolution on Tuesday calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature to review the laws put in place over a year ago to “avoid unintended consequences” that have resulted from the measures that eliminated pre-trial detention and cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges.

The resolution is heading to the full board after District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell, a Democrat, brought the idea to committee earlier this month, frustrated by the recent release of an alleged drug dealer on distribution charges in Amsterdam without bail.

Purtell said judges should have the discretion to set bail for anyone charged with a felony level offense to prevent possible threats to public safety. He expressed particular concern for alleged crimes involving drugs or guns.

“There has to be some balance between the rights of defendants and public safety whenever possible. Right now the bail statute ties the judges’ hands and gives only an illusion of discretion,” Purtell said. “I think when someone has created a risk to our community we have to be aware of the repercussions.”

The resolution that will come before the county Legislature describes New York as “one of the only states with bail reform that does not give its judges the opportunity to weigh in on public safety issues in most cases when making a bail determination” resulting in “dangerous individuals being returned to the streets unnecessarily.”

If approved by the county Legislature, the resolution and a letter written by Purtell will be sent to the governor and state Legislature urging lawmakers to review and revise bail reform.

The letter specifically calls for changes to include providing the authority for judges to consider public safety and the weight of evidence in deciding whether to set bail, the inclusion of felony drug and gun offenses among charges eligible for bail and the authority for judges to set bail on a case-by-case basis “without unnecessary instructions to micro-manage that discretion.”

Although he had no data to support the belief, Purtell suspects the release of most accused individuals without bail has contributed to an increase in crime. Local law enforcement officials have broadly spoken out against bail reform as creating obstacles to ensuring people facing charges appear in court and allowing alleged offenders the immediate chance to perpetrate another crime.

Purtell pointed to the release of the alleged drug dealers as effectively allowing those individuals back on the street to pick up where they left off selling drugs in the community. However, he was unable to point to any specific instances when an individual was charged with additional crimes after being released on their own recognizance.

In general, Purtell said the immediate release of most alleged offenders on their own recognizance without any input from the court or law enforcement officials fails to support these agencies.

“I was always uncomfortable with the total bail reform and we as county legislators were warned by law enforcement and the district attorney’s office how this was going to affect crime and the court system,” Purtell said.

Acknowledging the intent of the reform laws to prevent anyone charged with a low-level crime without the means to pay bail from languishing in jail until their case is resolved, Purtell indicated his interest is ensuring judges in the state have the discretion to make bail decisions on serious offenses once again.

“Bail is not an acceptable method of punishment for a crime,” Purtell said. “I don’t have a problem with bail reform, I have a problem with felonies not being eligible for bail … To me it’s obvious there is a difference between misdemeanors and felonies.”

Unaware of other counties and local governments in the state taking similar stances on bail reform, Purtell can’t say whether the Legislature’s action will lead state lawmakers to revisit bail reform.

“I don’t know whether it will make a difference, but I have the responsibility to bring this to people’s attention,” Purtell said. “It’s hit home, it’s hit our community and it needs our attention.”

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie

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