Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms during his State of the State and Budget Address in Albany on Tuesday, including an end to cash bail in New York and regulatory framework to legalize marijuana for adults over the age of 21.
His message to the New York Legislature included a $175 billion spending plan that proposes increasing the Attorney Registration Fee and Criminal History Search Fee by $50 each in an effort to support indigent legal services statewide. Those fees would increase to $425 and $90, respectively.
Cuomo’s budget included several proposals aimed at reducing pretrial detention waiting periods for defendants through bail, discovery and speedy trial reform—all issues the Legislature plans to act on during this year’s legislative session, according to lawmakers.
“This year we’re going to eliminate cash bail, we have to enact speedy trial reform, we have to pass discovery reform and we need to do more services for re-entry for this transitioning from incarceration back to the community,” Cuomo said.
State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, who is chairman of the Codes Committee, said he was glad to see those reforms included in Cuomo’s executive budget address.
“I’m excited that the governor has outline these as priorities,” Bailey said. “My colleagues in the Legislature and I, we’ve been looking at these as matters we’d like to take up ourselves and I’m glad the governor is interested in doing that.”
The first proposal would require police officers to issue appearance tickets to low-level defendants rather than make custodial arrests, which would keep the individual out of police custody until their appearance date.
Cash bail would be eliminated for individuals who do end up in police custody. Instead, a judge would decide whether an individual should be kept in state custody or released. Unless the judge has reason to believe the person cannot safely await trial in their community, that individual would automatically be released on their own recognizance.
The budget would also create a new procedure where prosecutors may move for a hearing to determine whether a defendant should be held in jail before trial. Defendants would be entitled to discovery before those hearings and the burden of proof would be on a prosecutor to convince the judge the individual should be kept in state custody.
The judge would have to conclude at the end of the hearing that there is reasonable cause to believe the defendant committed the crime and that the person presents a threat to the public or has failed to appear in court initially.
Cuomo’s plan for discovery reform is less detailed in terms of deadlines. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will be required to share all information in their possession well in advance of trial, according to the budget, but an exact deadline is not spelled out. If a defendant is considering pleading guilty to a crime, rather than go to trial, they would also be allowed to review every piece of evidence prosecutors currently have in their possession against them.
If a prosecutor believes that victims or witnesses could be endangered through discovery, they would be allowed to petition a court for a protective order for those individuals. That would shield the identifying information of those individuals when necessary if granted.
On speedy trial reform, Cuomo’s budget includes a proposal that would allow the court to inquire into a prosecutor’s so-called “readiness” to proceed to trial. A statement of “readiness,” which allows a judge to schedule a trial in New York, would only be accepted if prosecutors have filed all the appropriate paperwork. Prosecutors would also be prohibited from proceeding to trial until a defendant has been provided all the information in the case against them.
Cuomo also proposed a series of sweeping changes to reform grand jury proceedings in New York. Under current state law, any witness who testifies before a grand jury proceeding is automatically granted transactional immunity from being prosecuted unless they waive that privilege.
Cuomo’s proposal would, instead, grant those witnesses “use” immunity. That would prevent prosecutors from using their statements before a grand jury to later charge them, but it would not make them immune from charges altogether.
The budget would also remove certain barriers for individuals who seek to reintegrate into their communities after being arrested or released from prison. One proposal would prevent mugshots from being shared unless there’s a specific need by law enforcement. Another would prevent past arrest information from appearing on a person’s criminal history report, often sought by potential employers, if that arrest didn’t result in a conviction.
Among the most closely watched issues this year is the legalization of adult-use marijuana, which Cuomo is publicly supporting for the first time this year. His support came after a report from the state Department of Health recommended legalization based on the revenue and criminal justice benefits.
Cuomo’s budget would create a new state office to develop and implement a regulatory framework for marijuana legalization in New York. The Office of Cannabis Management, as it’s called in the budget, would be responsible for licensing growers and sellers, enforcing the state’s laws and regulations, and handling the economic development consequences of legalization. The office will also handle the medical marijuana program and the state’s industrial hemp market.
Licenses will be issued for producers, distributors and retailers, according to the budget. The number of producers and retail dispensaries will be limited, though a number was not included in the budget. The limit is intended to prevent the legalized marijuana market from collapsing on itself, the budget said.
The proposal would also automatically seal certain cannabis-related criminal records, though details on what level of offenses would be eligible were not included. Counties and large cities would be allowed to opt out of having retail marijuana shops under the proposal, which Cuomo expects would generate about $300 million in tax revenue statewide over three years.
Legalized marijuana would only be available to consumers age 21 or older. The state would also be responsible for implementing and monitoring standards for the quality and safety of retail marijuana, according to the budget.
State lawmakers will begin holding hearings on Cuomo’s proposals later this month, though they have indicated that some reforms may be passed outside the budget. Lawmakers, this week, approved several reforms to the state’s voting laws, which Cuomo was planning on including in budget negotiations.
A final spending plan for the state is due at the end of March. There’s new pressure this year for lawmakers to pass an on-time spending plan. Under an order from a state committee last month, state lawmakers will not receive a pay raise next year if they do not pass a budget by the start of the next fiscal year, which begins April 1.