Budget excludes major criminal justice reforms

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office
Gov. Cuomo met with correctional officers and inmates at the Greene Correctional Facility on May 28, 2015 as part of his push to enact legislation to “Raise the Age” of criminal responsibility in New York State. Reformers are disappointed with the new state budget because it doesn’t eliminate cash bail for smaller crimes nor does it change the discovery process for the benefit of criminal defense attorneys and their clients.

To the disappointment of criminal justice reformers, the new state budget does not include the cash bail, discovery or speedy trial reforms Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed earlier this year.

Despite a strong push for justice system reforms earlier this session, neither the changes proposed by Cuomo in his State of State Address, nor the more drastic changes some advocacy groups wanted, made it into the budget.

Cuomo’s proposed reforms were considered too modest by those who wanted large-scale change, and too radical by those who feared for public safety as a result of these potential changes. Cuomo’s budget proposal included elimination of cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, as well as encouraging the issue of public safety to be taken into consideration in release and bail decisions to reduce pretrial detention. 

However, advocates for more major bail reform pushed for increased regulation on a prosecutor’s power regarding presumption of preventative detention, and for release times to be faster for misdemeanors and violations to mirror current speedy trial release provisions.

“This is a shameful day for New York, and a complete failure of our State’s leaders to respond to the loud, unified call for comprehensive bail, discovery, and speedy trial reform,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice of The Legal Aid Society in an issued statement.

“Absent from this budget is any genuine concern for mass incarceration, wrongful convictions or the presumption of innocence. Today, tomorrow, and for the indefinite future, people of color will continue to bear the brunt of a disparate criminal justice system simply because Albany decided to put politics ahead of the people, and money ahead of justice.”

Regarding discovery law and speedy trial reform, Cuomo had proposed that prosecutors and defense lawyers must share information in a timely manner before the start of the trial to ensure access to a speedy trial and an educated plea-deal by the defendant.

Luongo reiterated that The Legal Aid Society is not “done fighting and will call on the Legislature to advance these key reform issues through standalone legislation by the end of session.”

Staff Attorney in the Decarceration Project at The Legal Aid Society Joshua Norkin said before the session ends, although he and his colleagues are disappointed by the budget, passing standalone legislation remains a hopeful possibility.

“We will be present in Albany to show our support of any potential legislation that will help us advance these important reforms,” Norkin said.

Despite the lack of bail, speedy trial and discovery law reforms, the budget includes implementing programs on Long Island to help cut off the recruitment pipeline to MS-13, and the prohibiting of sexual contact between police officers and individuals under their custody.

“We’re deeply disappointed by Albany’s failure to pass any criminal justice reforms in the budget, but we’re not pausing,” said Jared Chausow, senior policy specialist at Brooklyn Defender Services. “There’s no reason the state can’t fix these urgent problems – racist wealth-based pre-trial jailing, defendants and their attorneys being blindfolded to available evidence by broken discovery laws, and long case delays – on their first day back in session.”

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, Bronx Defenders, The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and the New York County Defender Service collectively wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and then Senate IDC Leader Jeff Klein expressing their discontent.

“How many more innocent people’s lives must be destroyed in jail before New York takes action?” Chausow said.

Before the passage of the budget, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York took a stance in opposition to any potential elimination of cash bail.

According to a statement, DAASNY believes although minor modifications to the New York’s bail and discovery statutes could enhance the state’s criminal justice system, the complete elimination of bail “goes too far and raises significant public safety concerns.”

“We were glad to see that the major policy issues were taken out of the budget, we dont believe they should be in the budget in the first place,” said Scott McNamara, president of DAASNY and district attorney of Oneida County. “There is room for change, but we feel that discuss those changes when we aren’t under the gun of trying to get the budget passed, and distracted by the other things going on.”

McNamara emphasized that although the DAASNY did not support what was initially proposed, they would like to discuss potential criminal justice reforms with legislators for future policy.

“To make change we need to be able to work the legislature and work with the governor,” McNamara said. “These advocate groups are never happy with what we concede to.”

A recognizance procedures and bail reform bill (S.07852/A.08820) sponsored by Sen. José Serrano, D-Bronx, and Assemblyman Dan Quart, D-Manhattan, resides in the Codes Committee in each house, representing the possibility of stand-alone legislation filling the gaps of the budget.