Lawmakers in New York appear to be coalescing around a forthcoming package of reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, including changes to laws concerning cash bail, criminal discovery and the amount of time an individual waits before their case is heard.
Legislation to update those laws could be announced by lawmakers sometime over the next two weeks, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said at an event in Manhattan this week. The New York Law Journal monitored the event on video.
Democrats in the Legislature have traditionally unveiled their criminal justice reform package in the middle of February when lawmakers travel to Albany for an annual legislative conference hosted by the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. Heastie said he expects that to also be the case this year.
“We have always, and we always usually did it around association weekend,” Heastie said. “It will still probably be my hope that we will still be putting out our criminal justice package as we have always done.”
The legislative conference is scheduled for the weekend of Feb. 15, a Friday, meaning lawmakers would have to announce their package of criminal justice reforms preceding those days. The Legislature is scheduled to be at the state capitol for hearings and session Feb. 11 and 12, but no other days that week.
There’s renewed hope this year that lawmakers will be able to enact criminal justice reform after years of it stalling in the state Senate, which had been in Republican control since 2011. Democrats won a firm majority of seats in the chamber in November, which has helped the legislation gain momentum in recent months.
Lawmakers who have sponsored or supported bills to change the state’s laws on cash bail, discovery and speedy trial have said they expect those reforms to happen this year, it’s just a matter of when. The same support was echoed this week by Heastie and Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, the deputy majority leader of chamber.
“We have a moment in time now because of the changed politics in Albany where we have a Democratic majority, a strong one, for the first time in over a century, to do something about this,” Gianaris said at the same event in Manhattan.
But that will require lawmakers to work out the differences that still exist between legislation to reform the state’s bail system and speedy trial laws. There’s already a two-way agreement on discovery reform between the Assembly and Senate, where the bill is sponsored by Sen. Jamaal Bailey, a Democrat from the Bronx who chairs the codes committee.
“Assemblyman [Joseph] Lentol and I are good,” Bailey said in an interview. Lentol, a Democrat from Brooklyn, sponsors the bill on discovery reform in the Assembly.
Their legislation would essentially create strict deadlines for the exchange of discoverable material, including evidence and witness information, between prosecutors and defendants early on in a case and well before trial. Current law allows prosecutors to withhold that material until days before trial, which supporters of discovery reform have argued places the defense at a disadvantage while preparing its case.
The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York has asked lawmakers to consider changing parts of that legislation by making those deadlines more flexible and strengthening provisions to protect the identities of witnesses. Albany County District Attorney David Soares, the current president of DAASNY, laid out the organization’s concerns in written testimony submitted to lawmakers this week.
“Prematurely exposing the identity of witnesses could result in more harassment, intimidation and violence against innocent citizens,” Soares wrote. “Witnesses could increasingly refuse to cooperate if they know that their name, address and contact information will be given to the defendant well before trial.”
The discovery bill includes a provision that would allow prosecutors to ask the court for permission to withhold information that could impede the participation of a witness, but Soares said the legislation should go further to guarantee protections for those willing to testify.
Despite those differences, discovery appears to be the only issue where Democrats have an agreement ready to go, though that’s always subject to change until it goes to the floor of both chambers for a vote.
Legislation to enact speedy trial reform is close to a resolution, Bailey said, but it’s not there yet. Current law in New York sets deadlines for when prosecutors have to be ready to go to trial, depending on the level of crime. Those deadlines are intended to guarantee a quick trial date, but can easily be passed by jumping through some procedural hoops.
Prosecutors are deemed ready to go to trial when they tell the court they are. They could then appear at the next court appearance and tell the court that they are not ready for trial, which extends their deadline.
Bailey and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, both have similar bills to curb the problem by allowing more accountability by the court over a prosecutor’s statement of readiness and a different method to tighten deadlines for a speedy trial. Bailey said the final details of the legislation are being worked out.
“We are looking to reconcile that with Assemblyman Aubry’s [bill]. We’re in conversations to make that a same-as,” Bailey said. “There are slight differences between the two which our respective counsels are trying to coalesce.”
And on those two issues, Democrats have received positive feedback from several top officials in the state, including Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks. Marks testified earlier this week in Albany that enacting both speedy trial and discovery reform would help reduce the consistent issue of backlog in state courts by expediting litigation in many cases.
“It’s important to hear Judge Marks, obviously a very qualified individual in a very important position, say that pretrial reform is vital and necessary and that we’ve been waiting for it for a very long time,” Bailey said.
Bail reform is the most contentious issue of the three, with lawmakers still divided on the details. Heastie said, for the first time publicly this week, that he supports an end to cash bail. That position is shared by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats in the Senate.
“I support a 100 percent ending of a cash bail system,” Heastie said. “On bail reform, I think the details will probably come down to what is a crime where there will be the issue of whether people should be remanded or not.”
Democrats in the Senate had a bill last year that would have ended cash bail altogether. A bill introduced late last year in the Assembly didn’t go quite as far, only eliminating cash bail for violations, misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Gianaris said he expects those differences to be reconciled this year.
“We have a governor who’s supportive, we have an Assembly who’s supportive,” Gianaris said. “We now just have to hash out the details, which may not be easy, but we’re going to do it.”
Cuomo pitched his own plan for criminal justice reform in his executive budget proposal last month, but lawmakers have said they’re open to approving their own set of bills outside the spending plan. That could happen before or after the state budget is due at the end of March.