Assembly Democrats Reject Senate Proposal to Change Cash Bail Law
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Rally in support of bail reform at the state capitol Wednesday
Credit: Dan Clark

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Democrats in the state Assembly are not planning to sign on to a proposal floated early Wednesday by lawmakers in the Senate to change the state’s new laws on cash bail by allowing judges to have more discretion when deciding if someone should be held before trial.

The proposal, floated through an article in Newsday Wednesday morning, would also eliminate cash bail completely in New York, while giving judges more control over individual cases.

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, said Wednesday that the proposal is akin to what was on the table last year, when lawmakers negotiated the current laws on cash bail. That plan was rejected at the time by the Assembly, and Lentol doesn’t see that changing.

“This is just a rolling out of the same proposal the Senate offered at the table last year, when we negotiated the bill,” Lentol said. “It isn’t anything new. It isn’t anything we haven’t seen yet. The Assembly rejected it at the table, so why would we accept it now?”

Under the proposal, judges would generally not be allowed to hold someone before trial if they’re accused of a low-level or nonviolent crime. There would be exceptions to that rule, like if someone’s a repeat offender, or if the charge resulted from someone’s death.

Judges would also be allowed to remand an individual charged with certain domestic violence felonies and hate crimes, according to the proposal.

Democrats in the Assembly said Wednesday they weren’t told about the proposal beforehand. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said it’s still too early to consider any changes to the law, including those proposed by the Senate Wednesday.

“The law’s only been in effect for six weeks and I think in order to ascertain as to whether any law that’s a transformative change is working, you need real data, real information, not cherry-picked stories and sensationalized events to try to paint a picture as to whether a law is working or not,” Heastie said.

Democrats in the Assembly, and a handful of members from the State Senate, rallied with criminal justice advocates Wednesday to oppose any changes to the law. That rally came a week after members of law enforcement held a similar event calling for a full repeal.

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, a Democrat from Brooklyn who was involved in negotiations on bail reform last year, said the Senate’s plan is a non-starter. She said it would essentially allow judges to evaluate someone’s ‘dangerousness,’ or threat to public safety.

“I can’t say we stand here today surprised,” Walker said. “We knew that they were not going to rest when they didn't get dangerousness in last year.”

The Senate’s plan, according to the proposal, wouldn’t give judges unfettered discretion to hold someone in jail before trial. It would, instead, provide strict guidelines and standards for when that option could be used.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, said in a statement that the proposal is a step forward for eliminating cash bail in New York, while preserving public safety by giving judges more discretion in certain cases.

“We would give judges some discretion but with extremely strict guidelines and guardrails and almost all misdemeanors and non-violent felonies would not be eligible for remand,” Stewart-Cousins said.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran, D-Nassau, is one of the architects of the proposal. He said Wednesday that the proposal was written to address concerns from individuals over defendants who are released, a history of recidivism or the level of charge against them.

“It clearly fixes some of the issues that many of us have been saying need to be corrected so that we’re simply giving judges the discretion they need, so we can protect communities and protect individuals as well,” Gaughran said.

He conceded that not everyone’s on board with the proposal as of now, but that they’re communicating with each other on how to move forward with the state’s bail laws.

“I think my conference has a variety of opinions on this subject and we’re all listening to each other,” Gaughran said.