New York state lawmakers on Sunday and early Monday morning completed their work on legislation that promises to create an entirely new criminal justice system that is intended to keep more people out of jail and have criminal proceedings disposed of more quickly.
Those changes will eliminate cash bail for most low-level crimes, like misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, and require prosecutors and the defense to abide by strict deadlines for the exchange of material that’s intended to be used at trial. The new law will take effect next year.
They’ll also require stronger oversight by judges as to how the number of days since the start of a criminal proceeding can be tolled. Criminal charges are supposed to be resolved within a set number of days in New York, depending on the level of crime. Litigants can currently use procedural moves to stop the clock, effectively delaying a defendant’s trial for various reasons.
The new changes to the state’s laws on cash bail, criminal discovery and speedy trial were included in one of 10 omnibus bills that made up the $175 billion state budget passed by state lawmakers in Albany from Sunday afternoon into early Monday morning. The state Assembly didn’t pass the last budget bill and adjourn until shortly before 8 a.m. Monday.
“It was a tough one. There wasn’t a lot of good things in here,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said of the budget. “But I have to say, one of the things that is, because particularly for me, when I first became speaker … I felt like my speakership would be in vain if we didn’t reform the criminal justice system here in the state of New York.”
The State Senate wrapped up voting on the last set of budget bills shortly after 3 a.m. Monday after a marathon session of voting that started Sunday morning.
“Our New York Senate is responsible for the most historic and dramatic reforms to our troubled criminal justice system, including realizing the bail reform many of us sought for years,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, the deputy majority leader in the chamber.
Shortly after bill language on the various criminal justice reforms was made public Sunday afternoon, stakeholders on the issue started to emerge with mixed views of the legislation.
The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, the group representing the state’s prosecutors, was particularly critical of the changes, which they said would place new burdens on their work in each jurisdiction. Albany County District Attorney David Soares, the current president of DAASNY, was critical of both the substance of the legislation and how it was crafted by state lawmakers.
“While most New Yorkers were sleeping and enjoying the weekend, a handful of lawmakers with limited knowledge of the criminal justice system, behind closed doors, came to an agreement that will place unnecessary burdens on the workings of our criminal justice system and actually slow down the wheels of justice,” Soares said.
Senate Republicans also opposed the changes, which they had previously called on Democrats in the majority to oppose. They held a press conference with members of law enforcement in recent weeks asking their colleagues to hold off on the legislation and reconsider the views of the state’s prosecutors. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk, was critical of the final deal on criminal justice reform and the state budget overall.
“Not only have Senate Democrats betrayed the hardworking taxpayers they are supposed to represent—they have focused virtually all of their energy on delivering for criminals and illegal immigrants, and appeasing the radical, socialist fringe that now controls their party,” Flanagan said.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, hailed the reforms as a step toward leveling the playing field for individuals charged by prosecutors, who have, at times, used the current law to their advantage. That’s not the case for all prosecutors. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, for example, has self-implemented a policy of open and immediate criminal discovery.
Defenders have argued that the current system disenfranchises low-income defendants and people of color. Lori Cohen, a defense attorney and the president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the new changes will help alleviate the challenges those individuals face under the current law.
“Today, the Governor and the New York State Legislature passed landmark and historic criminal justice reform which will ensure that all New Yorkers will have a fair, balanced criminal justice system—one that will end the scourge of wrongful prosecutions and convictions and take a crucial step towards addressing the deep racial inequity present in the criminal justice system,” Cohen said.
Criminal justice advocates, meanwhile, were generally supportive of the final legislation but vowed to continue urging lawmakers to end money bail altogether, which the Legislature appeared poised to do earlier this year. Democrats, behind closed doors, ultimately couldn’t agree on what should happen to defendants charged with violent felony offenses.
“With the passage of discovery and speedy trial reform, New York has finally instituted meaningful checks on the power of prosecutors to indefinitely delay a case, withhold evidence and coerce plea deals,” said DeAnna Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, an advocacy group. “However, the fight to end money bail and protect the constitutional and human rights of all New Yorkers must continue.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters Sunday evening that discussions on how to eliminate cash bail completely will continue throughout the rest of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end in June. He said the same in a radio interview Monday morning.
“Criminal justice reform, where ending cash bail, that was a difficult issue,” Cuomo said. “District attorney’s didn’t like it, politicians were nervous about it.”
Heastie and other Democrats in the Legislature have said since the bail reform proposal was unveiled over the weekend that they’re still committed to eliminating cash bail altogether, but that they chose to leave violent felony offenses out of the final deal to come to an on-time budget. He said early Monday morning before the Assembly adjourned that negotiations on the issue will continue.
“We got this close to making it a cashless system, but we are going to get to the finish line to make it a completely cashless bail system,” Heastie said.