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EDITORIAL: Lawmakers rushed bail reform changes

EDITORIAL: Lawmakers rushed bail reform changes

Compromise bill passed with little public debate doesn't fully address the problems with the original reforms
EDITORIAL: Lawmakers rushed bail reform changes
State Capitol Building in Albany.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber/Staff Photographer

This is what we warned about when it became clear that state lawmakers were going to try to cram changes to the new bail reform law into their usual frantic efforts to pass a state budget on time.

Rather than waiting until after the budget negotiations, made far more challenging this year by the revenue losses to the state created by the coronavirus outbreak, they went ahead with changes to the law anyway.

What they came up with, as expected, was a set of watered-down revisions that don’t fully address the problems with the original bail reforms.

Worse, they did it in a rushed, secret manner so that here was little if any vetting of either side’s positions and statistics. 

And in the frenzy to pass a budget on time (they were two days late anyway), there was no visible public debate on an issue that effects all New Yorkers.

If anything required more thought and debate from our state lawmakers, it was changes to a life-and-death bill such as this.

The compromise bill isn’t a total disaster, in that it did address some of the concerns.

For instance, it did restore some crimes for cash bail eligibility that never should have been removed in the first place.

These include second-degree burglary, which involves the intent to commit another crime during a burglary and in many cases involves a weapon; vehicular manslaughter, a charge usually brought in fatalities involving drunken driving; and promoting child pornography.

But the changes failed to include giving judges the power to determine a defendant’s “dangerousness” in setting bail, a provision that would have created an added protection for domestic violence victims, witnesses and the rest of society.

One of the better changes involved giving prosecutors more time to turn over evidence to defendants and providing $40 million to help district attorneys upgrade their computer systems and add staff to deal with the more stringent discovery rules.

But with more thought, debate and facts presented over time, they could have come up with a better bill.

How legitimate, for instance, are claims by some opponents of the original reforms that crime has risen sharply in direct response to allowing more types of crimes to be exempt from cash bail?

Supporters of the bill called their efforts to change the bill “a campaign of lies and fear.” Was it?

On the other side, how much of an impact on minorities and the potential spread of coronavirus in jails and prisons will we see because more people may be held in jails to await their trials under this compromise?

Both sides of the issue have made claims, but neither side got a full public airing outside of their own press releases.

That’s the danger of passing and amending complex laws in this manner.

Ultimately, we suspect, they’ll have to revisit the reforms again when the problems come into clearer focus.

Rather than rush this through among the frenzy of budget negotiations, lawmakers owed the public, prosecutors and defendants a more thorough and thoughtful debate.

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