Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said three times in the last two weeks, including once Wednesday, that he won’t approve this year’s state budget, due in three weeks, without legislation that would reform the state’s criminal justice system.
But Democrats in the Legislature haven’t made the same commitment, saying instead that they could pass legislation to reform the state’s laws on bail, criminal discovery and the right to a speedy trial outside the spending plan, which is expected to pass at the end of the month.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, told reporters this week that Democrats in the Assembly have still not come to a resolution on a package of criminal justice reforms, but that they would be open to approving such legislation at any time—before or after the state budget is due, assuming they reach a consensus.
He said they’re treating it like the discussion on legalizing recreational marijuana. Heastie said last month that Democrats in the Assembly would negotiate that issue after the state budget is passed if they can’t agree on strong language to legalize the drug as part of the spending plan.
“Just like with marijuana, if it can happen—great. But we’re just really looking at the fiscal aspects of it and we’ll continue talking about all policy things,” Heastie said. “If we can take care of it before the budget, during the budget, it’s fine either way.”
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, told reporters on Wednesday that the timing of when lawmakers are planning to take up a package of bills on criminal justice reform is, so far, unclear, but that they’re getting closer to a resolution on the issue. She said Heastie and his staff met in her office on Wednesday to discuss the legislation.
“There isn’t a hold-up, we just want to make sure we do it right,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We want to make sure what we do, we do it in a comprehensive way and we do it right because obviously it’s important that, because it’s been so difficult for so many for so long, that when we do have reform, we do it right.”
Cuomo, meanwhile, is pushing lawmakers to include both criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization in the state budget, which is often used as a catch-all for policy matters during the first half of the year’s legislative session. Lawmakers typically roll out another large package of policy-related bills in June before they’re scheduled to leave Albany for the year.
Cuomo said during a radio interview Wednesday that he wouldn’t agree to a state budget without a deal on criminal justice reform. He included legislation to end cash bail, reform criminal discovery, and change the state’s laws on speedy trial in his executive budget proposal in January.
“We can’t do a budget without criminal justice reform,” Cuomo said.
Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, who chairs the Codes Committee, said including criminal justice reform in the state budget may convince lawmakers who are divided on the issue to come to the table for a resolution.
“I’m happy to do it anywhere—inside the budget, outside the budget, before the budget, after the budget—as long as it gets done,” Lentol said. “This may be a good subject for budget negotiations to try and get it done, just because there are bargaining positions on both sides, and maybe people have bargaining tools to bring to the table to get some sort of three-way consensus.”
Lentol said interest among lawmakers in discussing criminal justice reform has grown in recent weeks as the issue gained more attention from Cuomo and the Legislature.
Staff from the Senate and Assembly have met with Cuomo’s office to talk about including criminal justice reform in the budget at least once in recent weeks, according to a legislative source. As of Wednesday, lawmakers hadn’t come to an agreement on any plank of the criminal justice package expected to be unveiled by Democrats at some point this year.
Lentol said the hang-up among lawmakers is centered on how Democrats want to reform the state’s bail system. New York currently allows judges to set cash bail, a practice that advocates have said disenfranchises low-income residents who are then subject to pretrial detention while wealthier defendants can pay to be released.
“Bail is such a complex topic,” Lentol said. “You have three different opinions right now on how to do it and no consensus in the conferences either.”
State Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, amended his bill to end cash bail this week to include the option for electronic monitoring of defendants in place of pretrial detention, an idea that was proposed in a different bill in the Assembly last year. The newly amended bill would also require police officers to issue appearance tickets, rather than make an arrest, in more cases.
Republicans in the Senate are opposed to the measure, though their political clout was diminished this year after they lost the majority in the chamber. They chose last year, when they controlled the chamber, not to bring legislation to the floor for a vote that would have changed the state’s laws on cash bail, criminal discovery and speedy trial.
Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk, urged Democrats on Wednesday to hit pause on the reform proposals and instead hold hearings on criminal justice reform. He said Republicans are not opposed to reform, but that they want to include more input on the legislation from prosecutors and other members of law enforcement.
“I think this is a classic example of haste makes waste,” Flanagan said.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney, a Democrat, said during a press conference with the Senate Republicans, that prosecutors would welcome reform if it were tailored more to accommodate their concerns about certain charges still being eligible for presumptive release under the legislation proposed by Cuomo.
“District attorneys are not opposed to reform of the criminal justice system,” Carney said.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez also signed onto a letter sent to Cuomo and legislative leaders Wednesday calling for an end to cash bail altogether. They said in the letter that defendants should be subject to presumptive release before trial and that the decision to detain someone before their court date should be left up to a judge.
“We also support establishing a presumption that people should be released pretrial for all but the most serious offenses,” the letter said. “The only people who should be detained pretrial are those who a judge finds pose a specific, clear and credible threat to the physical safety of the community, or who are a risk of intentionally evading their court dates.”
Soares, who is the current president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, signed onto the letter in his personal capacity. DAASNY has said the current proposals should be tweaked to accommodate their concerns over witness intimidation, in the case of more open criminal discovery, and public safety on bail reform.
Lawmakers have yet to introduce legislation that’s considered a final, two-way agreement on any of the larger criminal justice issues. If they choose to include them in the budget, language likely won’t be seen until the end of the month before lawmakers approve it.