Legislation to enact criminal justice reforms to New York state’s laws on cash bail, criminal discovery and speedy trial are still in flux this week in Albany as lawmakers continue discussions on how to present a complete legislative package on the issue.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said after a meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, that he wasn’t sure lawmakers would be presenting the set of bills this week.
“I think we’re still discussing it,” Heastie said. “I’m not sure if we’re going to get to it this week.”
Heastie had said at an event late last month that Democrats were planning to present their package of criminal justice reforms this week, which precedes the annual legislative conference meeting of the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators.
The event, commonly called Caucus Weekend in Albany, usually follows an announcement by Democrats on bills that would enact such reforms. For most of the past decade, those announcements have been just that—announcements. Republicans, who previously controlled the State Senate had blocked efforts from the other side of the aisle to reform the state’s criminal justice system.
This year is different. Democrats now control both the State Assembly and State Senate, meaning any two-way agreement on the reforms will likely be approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has also expressed support for them in his executive budget proposal this year.
Heastie said legislation to enact changes to the state’s laws on monetary bail, criminal discovery and the amount of time a defendant has to wait before their trial has not been wrapped up among his conference and Democrats in the Senate.
“All three of the major ones go together, so we’d like to be in a good place on all three,” Heasite said. “So, we’re still discussing.”
Sources close to the negotiations had been hopeful last week that an agreement could be made in time for an announcement in the coming days, though that looks less likely this week after Heastie’s comments. There’s already been a two-way agreement between lawmakers on discovery reform, but bills on bail reform and speedy trial had not been introduced as of Monday afternoon.
Lawmakers have indicated that part of the hang-up is on bail reform. The Senate introduced a bill last year that would eliminate cash bail altogether, while a bill from the Assembly would have kept it for some criminal charges. Heastie said late last month that he supported ending cash bail altogether, though that doesn’t necessarily represent the position of his conference.
Lawmakers have also met in recent days with prosecutors from the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, which remains opposed to the current proposals for criminal justice reform. They’ve said they’re not necessarily against reform, but that the bills on the table would require a major funding increase for the courts and their officers to comply with the statutes.
The bill reforming criminal discovery, for example, would require prosecutors to exchange the first phase of material to be used at trial within 15 days of an arraignment. Albany County District Attorney David Soares, the current president of DAASNY, said last week that kind of deadline may require more staff and resources in some counties to be able to put the material together by that cutoff.
“If you want to do this, go ahead and do it, pass the legislation and if it’s coming with a check to all the counties to implement what you envision, well that’s a different conversation because you’re eliminating some of our process challenges,” Soares said.
Soares suggested extending that initial deadline to at least 30 days, and possibly 45, to give prosecutors and their staff more time to compile the material for the defense.
Cuomo included legislation to reform the state’s laws on criminal discovery, cash bail and speedy trial in his executive budget address this year, meaning they could be included in the state’s final spending plan. That’s due at the end of March, but lawmakers have also said they’re open to passing the reforms outside of the budget. That could happen before it’s due or after, up until this year’s legislative session is scheduled to end in June.
Democrats and advocates have long called for criminal justice reform as a way to fix a system they’ve labeled as unfair. They want to eliminate cash bail as a means of leveling the playing field when low-income people are accused of a crime. High-income people can currently pay their way out of detention, while others have to remain in custody because of their financial situation.
Discovery reform, which is the only issue that seems to be wrapped up among lawmakers, would provide information from prosecutors to defendants earlier and in a way supporters argue to be more transparent. Advocates of the reform say that will give defendants more time to prepare their case or decide if they want to take a plea deal.
Speedy trial, which is arguably spoken about the least among the three issues, would aim to set tighter deadlines and oversight over attorneys whose actions may delay a trial past its expected start date. That’s caused some defendants to languish in detention for months before they’re heard in court, even though they haven’t been convicted of anything.
Prosecutors aren’t necessarily against those reforms, but they’re asking lawmakers to hear their experience on the issues before they move forward with any legislation.
“Right now, I think people assume that we just want to say ‘no’ and that’s just not the case,” Soares said last week. “We want to achieve the spirit of the legislative proposals, but we want to make sure it’s done responsibly, not at the expense of victims, and we want to make sure we do it in a way that will be long-lasting.”
State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, said in an interview last week that he’s willing to hear from prosecutors on their concerns and would consider them while negotiating a final legislative package. Bailey has significant pull on the issues as chair of the Senate Codes Committee.
The legislative session is scheduled to end June 19.