Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that if lawmakers don’t agree to reform the state’s laws on cash bail, criminal discovery and the right to a speedy trial by the time the state budget is due in three weeks, those reforms likely won’t be dealt with until next year at the earliest.
Cuomo’s comments come as lawmakers inch closer to a deal on those reforms, with last week being “very productive,” according to state Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, who’s directly involved in negotiations around bail reform in particular.
Discussions on criminal discovery and speedy trial reform have been ongoing, but the spotlight has largely been on bail reform and eliminating cash bail altogether. Lawmakers have been negotiating how, and when, judges would decide if a defendant should be held in jail ahead of their trial or released on their own recognizance.
Cuomo said Monday that if a package of bills isn’t agreed to by the end of the month, criminal justice reform would be unlikely to pass by the time this year’s legislative session ends in June.
“I don’t believe they will do it after the budget,” Cuomo said. “They also have a wide divide on criminal justice issues, I believe wider than on marijuana.”
Cuomo had said he wasn’t confident lawmakers would legalize marijuana for adult, recreational use by the end of the month based on the lack of progress during negotiations in recent weeks. But unlike marijuana, Cuomo said he thought lawmakers could come together on criminal justice reform before the budget is due March 31.
“The budget is a point of reconciliation. It is the strongest point of reconciliation in the year. It forces people to make tough decisions. It forces legislators to make tough decisions,” Cuomo said. “I have fought for this for seven years. I am not going to go through another year where we don’t do criminal justice reform.”
The state budget, estimated this year to be more than $170 billion, is often used as a catch-all for significant pieces of policy legislation, as well as allocating state revenue for spending over the next fiscal year. The budget has been used in recent years, for example, to enact a phased-in $15 statewide minimum wage.
The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York said earlier this year that if lawmakers want to enact stricter rules for criminal discovery, like an earlier deadline for the exchange of material to be used at trial, more funding should come with it. Some prosecutors, they have said, don’t have the resources to hand over discovery 15 days after a defendant’s arraignment, which is what the current legislation would require if enacted.
Cuomo said he’s not convinced more funding for local prosecutors would win their support.
“I am not convinced that the issue is more staff. If I was convinced that would be something we would discuss,” Cuomo said. “These issues interconnect. What they’re saying is if we release more people and we accelerate discovery you could theoretically have people released and you then reveal the identity of the witnesses while they’re released and this is a bad combination.”
Albany County District Attorney David Soares, the current president of DAASNY, has raised concerns over both the funding aspect and the possibility of witness information falling into the wrong hands. He, and other prosecutors, have said allowing defendants to know who will testify against them long before trial could open the door to witness intimidation.
DAASNY did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Cuomo’s remarks Monday morning.
Members of the organization have been communicating with their local state lawmakers in an effort to have their position heard on criminal justice reform before a package of bills is introduced and passed in Albany. Democrats in moderate districts could pay a political price for voting to approve more progressive versions of those reforms, but Cuomo said including them in the budget could contain some of that fallout.
“I’ll take the blame. When it’s in the budget, it allows everyone to say, ‘it wasn’t me, it was the governor,’” Cuomo said. “Blame me. Guilty!”
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have also suggested they could introduce a package of bills outside the budget to be passed sometime this month. That would take criminal justice reform off the table as part of the spending plan, assuming Cuomo signs whatever bills the Legislature sends him.
“I’d like to see it as quickly as we can get it done, and if we get it done outside the budget sooner, that would be great,” Gianaris said.
Bills to reform the state’s laws on bail, criminal discovery and the right to a speedy trial are likely to come as a package deal, rather than being passed separately over a number of weeks. Lawmakers like Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, have said for months that all three should be considered together because of how they play into each other. Cuomo made the same point Monday.
“There are concerns that have to be talked through [on discovery]. Speedy trial also plays into it,” Cuomo said. “If you had a real speedy trial system, how long a person was held would be less onerous.”
Lawmakers have until the end of the month to come to an agreement with Cuomo on criminal justice reform if it’s to be included in the budget. They could also approve a package of bills at any point until this year’s legislative session is scheduled to end June 19.