High hopes for criminal justice reforms seem to be meeting cold, hard political reality, which in Albany often means dropping the more ambitious bills. Some of this year’s bigger asks, such as parole reform for the Republicans and the Child Victims Act for the Democrats, seem to be going nowhere, but smaller bills may sneak through before the session ends on June 20. Here’s the latest from the insiders.
Bail, discovery and speedy trial reform
Calls for bail reform have become louder than ever on the left, with state Senate Democrats proposing to completely eliminate cash bail – the practice of a judge charging criminal defendants some amount of money in order to stay out of jail before their trial. That idea seems to be too far for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but the governor has signed on to some level of reform, arguing for the elimination of bail for lesser crimes as part of a larger criminal justice reform package. The bills include legislation that would grant defense attorneys earlier access to evidence, which could lead to fairer – and faster – trials. But supporters don’t expect the reforms to get past the Republican-controlled state Senate. Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeffrey Dinowitz said he’ll push for expanding the use of electronic court filings, which could speed up legal proceedings, but advocates are eager for more. “Impacted communities and the greater public now recognize the profound injustices that Albany has permitted to exist for decades while other states have taken action to fix the problems,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society. “We need genuine change, and we need it this year.”
The release from prison on parole of Herman Bell, who killed two NYPD officers in 1971, further emphasized calls for parole reform after the controversy surrounding Judith Clark. Clark was the driver of the getaway car in a 1981 robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead, but she was denied parole last year, despite Cuomo commuting her sentence at the end of 2016. State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, chairman of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, is pushing a number of reforms including opening parole hearings to the public and allowing the state Parole Board to consider input from regular New Yorkers. “If you look at criminal cases, they all say, ‘The People of the State of New York’ versus the individual,” Gallivan said. “And I believe very strongly that members of the community should have a say.” But he admits such reforms would have a tough time passing with the Assembly’s Democratic majority. “I’ve been troubled with the fact that the Assembly seems reluctant to take anything up that involves additional penalties, or new crimes or legislation that is designed to hold offenders accountable for their actions,” he said.
Child Victims Act
Passage isn’t likely for this perennial bill, which would expand the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases and allow accusers to bring lawsuits against their alleged perpetrators. Some powerful institutions, chief among them the Roman Catholic Church, fear the costs, and have held up the bill for years with the support of the state Senate’s Republican majority. The Assembly passed the bill earlier this month, but the Senate has blocked a committee vote on the bill. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, said he’s procedurally out of options. “But we’ll continue to make it clear to the public that (Republicans) are standing on the wrong side of the issue,” he said. Republicans have suggested a public fund for victims’ legal settlements as a compromise, but both Cuomo and the Senate Democrats say it’s a non-starter. “In no way should the public be on the hook for the crimes of child sexual abuse,” Hoylman said.
It seems many of the higher profile bills won’t move before the end of the session, but Dinowitz isn’t giving up yet. “I would not make the assumption, as some people have, that, for all intents and purposes, session is over,” he said. He’s pushing a bill, for example, that would give New Yorkers the right to sue if a sexual partner tampers with a sexual protective device – like secretly removing a condom during sex. “It’s certainly a violation that I think needs to be addressed in the law,” he said. In the state Senate, Gallivan is optimistic the state will pass a number of bills, including one that would authorize municipalities to put residential restrictions on sex offenders, even though the state Court of Appeals essentially struck down such restrictions in a 2015 case. Gallivan is also supporting a bipartisan bill with Assembly Correction Committee Chairman David Weprin that would ban “double bunking” in state prisons. “That’s an excellent example of something that can help make our prisons safer,” Gallivan said. But Hoylman is disappointed that his efforts to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which would strengthen protections for transgender New Yorkers, have failed again this session. “I can’t tell if they’re sticking their head in the sand or just turning their backs on moderate voters,” he said. “But I think they’re doing it at their own peril come November.”