Lawmakers are “extremely close” to striking a deal on legislation to change to the state’s laws on cash bail, criminal discovery, and the right to a speedy trial and there’s a good chance it could happen before the end of the month, Democrats said on Thursday.
That’s contrary to the opinion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his advisers who have claimed in the past week that lawmakers have a “wide divide” on criminal justice reform that can’t be reconciled without the pressure of including those changes in this year’s state budget.
That spending plan is expected to be approved at the end of March, but Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, said during a budget subcommittee meeting on Thursday that lawmakers could introduce and pass legislation reforming the state’s criminal justice system separate from the budget before that deadline.
“In my view, the job of this subcommittee is to ensure that vital criminal and civil justice programs continue to operate,” Lentol said. “And enact vital changes to our criminal justice system, that I must say will probably occur in or outside of this subcommittee because the Senate and the Assembly are presently negotiating on a variety of different reform measures that we hope to agree on, hopefully even before the budget is passed.”
Cuomo wants criminal justice reform included in the budget to force state lawmakers to come to a deal on those issues before the spending plan is due at the end of March. He’s suggested that without the pressure of budget negotiations, lawmakers won’t come to an agreement on criminal justice reform until next year at the earliest.
Melissa DeRosa, a top adviser to Cuomo, on Wednesday, criticized the Legislature’s inaction on the issue during the first two months of this year’s legislative session, which started in January.
“We have a lack of faith in the Legislature coming to an agreement if we can’t get there by April 1. There is a gall of differences between them on criminal justice,” DeRosa said. “We’re now in March. Why is it that we haven’t been able to get there yet? We believe if you can’t get there by the end of the budget, it isn’t going to happen.”
Hours later, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, refuted DeRosa’s claim that Democrats were far away from a deal on criminal justice reform, saying lawmakers were “very close” to an agreement on ending cash bail, changing criminal discovery, and reforming the state’s speedy trial laws. She repeated that view on Thursday during a radio interview.
“We are extremely close in the discovery, in speedy trial, a lot closer on bail. We understand that what we do is going to impact the lives of so many people incarcerated,” Stewart-Cousins said. “So, we want to get it right and we want to make sure it really reforms the criminal justice system in ways that will protect the innocent and make sure people who should be in jail are in jail.”
Lentol said if lawmakers come to an agreement before the budget is negotiated, they’ll likely approve it outside the spending plan and send the bills to Cuomo for a signature. But coming to a deal in less than three weeks won’t be easy, he said.
“If we can get it outside the budget, we’ll do it. If we can get an agreement between the Senate and the Assembly, we’ll do it,” Lentol said. “Bail reform is really a sticking point.”
Democrats in the Assembly and Senate have been working to negotiate a deal that would end cash bail, but lawmakers have been treading carefully around how to create a new system in a way that’s fair to individuals accused of a crime and prosecutors who bring those charges.
Lawmakers are trying to decide how, and when, a defendant will be eligible to be held in jail before trial rather than be released on their own recognizance. Much of that conversation has to do with whether judges should have more, or less, discretion in those cases, and what factors should be considered when making that decision.
Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, D-Brooklyn, said on Thursday that if lawmakers do eliminate cash bail, they should be careful in legislating the determinants of pretrial detention and think about whether they could be discriminatory.
“It shouldn’t be looking at a person with racial lenses, and making predetermined notions and decisions under a ‘Minority Report’-style antics that states because you look like you might be engaged in criminality then you should be subjected to some other lens with respect to bail,” Walker said.
The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York has said its members support the idea of presumptive release for most low-level charges, but that others should be carved out to allow the possibility of pretrial detention.
The other two issues — changing criminal discovery and reforming the state’s speedy trial laws — are all but settled, Lentol said. Those bills are intended to require prosecutors to provide material intended to be used at trial to the defense early on in a case and prompt both sides to move a criminal proceeding along efficiently.
“We haven’t nailed it all down, but they’re close enough to say that if we can get bail reform, we’ll have a whole package,” Lentol said.
Lawmakers could pass each item individually, but several Democrats involved in negotiations have said they would prefer them approved as a package since they’re all interconnected. If that package happens to be part of the state budget, lawmakers will have until the end of the month to reach a deal.