SCHENECTADY — As the firestorm over bail reform continues to rage and dominate the beginning of this year's state legislative session, there have been a couple of notable, if not high-profile, cases in Schenectady.
Unlike high-profile cases in the news in Colonie and Saratoga County, where suspects accused of bank robbery and making a terroristic threat have been released without bail, the effect of the reforms have been mostly muted in Schenectady County.
According to Schenectady County District Attorney Bob Carney, in one case a five-time convicted felon and sex offender with a record of failing to appear at court appearances was released with an appearance ticket after he attempted to light the porch of an unoccupied house on fire.
In another case, because of the compressed timeline to turn over evidence to the defense -- another new reform in the criminal justice system -- city police were forced to release a suspect found with a large quantity of narcotics “packed in a manner typical of distribution,” said city Police Chief Eric Clifford.
“Due to discovery rules, we had to release them without charges until we got the test results back from the drugs,” Clifford said.
The new bail and discovery reforms that went into effect at the beginning of the year scrap pre-trial detention and cash bail for misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges — and some violent ones.
Opposition has been mounting from law enforcement, prosecutors, Republicans and some upstate Democrats for months, who contend those accused of crimes like robbery and manslaughter present a public safety risk.
And the call to revisit elements of the legislation has intensified since Jan. 1, as suspects begin to be freed from custody without bail following their arrests.
The changes have even attracted the attention of some national legislators. U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schulyerville, who held a roundtable with law enforcement officials in Milton this week, criticized the reforms and said they should be changed. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, backed the changes.
"Cash bail is an unreasonably punitive and financially burdensome system that disproportionately victimizes Black and Brown communities," Warren wrote on Twitter. "Rolling back these reforms would blatantly disregard the voices of New Yorkers who voted to end it." (Residents did not vote for the reforms, but rather elected state lawmakers who passed legislation implementing them.)
Advocates for the law, however, say horror stories about criminals roaming the streets and skipping future court dates are overblown.
Schenectady County Public Defender Stephen M. Signore said he isn’t aware of any suspects failing to re-appear at court dates or committing second offenses.
"I have no reason to believe at this point in time that there's been any re-arrests,” he said.
The laws, a central plank of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s criminal justice reform agenda, were passed following a Democratic-takeover of the state Senate last year.
Supporters maintain cash bail results in an inequitable system because it disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities, leaving suspects to languish in jail while awaiting trial.
“The new laws give to everyone what the old laws only gave to those with wealth -- innocence until proven guilty,” said Schenectady resident Shawn Young, an activist who previously served time in state prison.
The new laws, he said, also serve to protect against abuses by the state.
Carney said he doesn’t disagree some reforms were needed, but he wants to see more judicial discretion on releasing suspects that may pose a public safety threat, a measure backed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive, and one gaining support among GOP state lawmakers and many upstate Democratic lawmakers.
“Burglary and robberies are the most concerning,” Carney said, “and arson third [degree] is also troubling.”
Some Republicans want to repeal the law entirely, while other GOP lawmakers and upstate Democrats have proposed more moderate amendments.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, and state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, have co-sponsored legislation to restore judicial discretion.
Tedisco said reform should be the first bill passed by lawmakers in the new legislative session and not folded into the budget process.
“Any changes to the bail and discovery reform law should be debated and voted on their own merits on the floors of both houses of the Legislature and not as part of the state budget,” he said.
The uproar comes as Cuomo delivered his 2020 State of the State address and lawmakers returned to Albany on Wednesday for the beginning of the legislative session.
Following the drumbeat of criticism, Cuomo and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both Democrats, have indicated they will consider modifications.
“Changing the system is complicated and then has a number of ramifications,” Cuomo said Monday. “There’s no doubt this is still a work in progress and there are other changes that have to be made.”
The governor’s office said it supports adding hate crimes to a list of bailable offenses and would consider additional changes.
Cuomo didn’t mention the subject in his 79-minute address on Wednesday, drawing further ire from Republicans.
“He addressed it at a State of the State event on Monday,” wrote Cuomo adviser Rich Azzopardi on Twitter.
Advocates of the reforms knocked any prospects of repeal, however slight.
"It is proof yet again that Cuomo isn't the progressive he claims to be, that he isn't the supporter of the Black community he claims to be,” Young said.
Jamaica Miles, an activist with Citizen Action of New York, accused law enforcement officials and Republicans of hypocrisy, contending they’ve been mum on powerful men committing sexual abuse and corporations poisoning the environment.
“When will law enforcement and Republicans demand charges and prosecution of those responsible for the harm done to those communities?" she said.