Featured Story

Could changes to state’s bail reform law be on the horizon?

Democrats in Albany are feeling the pressure to amend bail reform laws that took effect in January.

Under the new laws, those arrested for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies are issued a desk appearance ticket rather than being arraigned by a judge, where bail is traditionally set. Criminal justice reform advocates argued that the law would end discrimination against poorer defendants who couldn’t pay their way out of pretrial detention like their wealthier counterparts could.

The law came under immediate fire from Republicans, law enforcement agencies and some moderate Democrats, who argued that some individuals released under the new law posed a risk to their communities and that perpetrators of some serious crimes are no longer subject to bail requirements. 

“The reckless way in which it was rolled out is the problem,” Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said in an interview last Thursday.

But reforms could be on the horizon.

According to a report in Newsday earlier this month, Democrats in the state Senate are weighing changes to the law that would abolish cash bail altogether, largely modeling the federal system.

Under the plan, proposed by Senate Majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), misdemeanors would no longer be subject to bail requirements. Instead, a person charged with a crime could be remanded, electronically monitored or released on their own recognizance until their next court date.

The proposal would also allow certain sex crimes, hate crimes, domestic violence, robbery and any charge involving a fatality to warrant pretrial detention or monitoring. The changes directly address concerns raised by some judges who said the new law strips them of discretion. Judges would be able to consider the nature of the crime and the defendant’s criminal history and flight risk when deciding whether to detain or monitor someone.

According to Mr. Palumbo, the revised proposal is causing a rift among Democrats in the Assembly.

“They’re saying ‘no rollback, no repeal,’ and digging their heels in,” he said, adding that no formal bills have been introduced.

In a statement issued Feb. 12, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said it’s too soon to change the law and its impact should be studied carefully.

“As with all new laws, we need to monitor its implementation,” the statement read. “We need to differentiate fact from fiction and not rely on sensationalism and cherry-picked stories.”

Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives at the Brooklyn-based Vera Institute of Justice, which advocates for judicial reforms, agrees. In an interview Monday, she said reactions to the law are “very much skewed.”

While pushback from law enforcement was somewhat expected, Ms. Rahman said, many of the law’s critics are using “outlier incidents and individual cases to make grand, broad proclamations” about how bail reform is working. “These kinds of statistics are being weaponized,” she said.

Ms. Rahman called on state lawmakers to approve funding for infrastructure to help implement bail reform effectively across the state and for data collection to evaluate the new law’s impacts.

She said the goal of the legislation was to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated while awaiting trial — a number that has declined 30% compared to this time last year, she said.

“We have to make good policy on data and evidence, not on fear-mongering,” Ms. Rahman said.

According to Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon’s office, the current population at the Riverside correctional facility is 375 inmates. In the spring of 2019, a spokesperson said, the population was 550 inmates. In Yaphank, 294 inmates are currently being held, compared to 645 last April.

At a Town Board work session last week, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said overall crime was down in January compared to last year and that, to date, no repeat offenders have been arrested in Riverhead.

“Anyone that we’ve arrested has not been re-arrested by us,” he said. “We have had cases where people have been arrested in Southampton that have been released and arrested by us afterwards, so that has happened.”

Councilwoman Catherine Kent inquired about the number of those types of arrests, a figure Chief Hegermiller said he couldn’t immediately provide. Riverhead is currently aiming to fully integrate its records management system with those of neighboring departments to aid in record sharing by March 2021. “In the future, it won’t be a problem when we’re all on the same records management system,” he said.

The chief also said that two light-duty officers have been assigned to help with getting digital data and evidence to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, in addition to officers scanning their paperwork and reports and sending that to the DA.

The bail reform measures included additional changes to the state’s discovery laws, and now requires that discovery materials in a case be turned over to the defense within 15 days.

“The mindset right now is whatever the police department has, the DA’s office has,” the chief said.

Mr. Palumbo declined to say whether he’d support the current proposed changes to the law. In the meantime, he called for a total repeal. He pointed to New Jersey as an example, which took three years to implement its program and allows judges to use discretion. 

“Repeal it,” he said. “Let’s exhale and get back to the drawing board.”