Will the bail reforms survive the session?

New York City’s plan to build new jails to replace the notorious Rikers Island complex dominated headlines this fall.
New York City’s plan to build new jails to replace the notorious Rikers Island complex dominated headlines this fall.
New York City’s plan to build new jails to replace the notorious Rikers Island complex dominated headlines this fall.

Will the bail reforms survive the session?

The top criminal justice bills on Albany’s 2020 agenda.
December 17, 2019

New York City’s plan to build new jails to replace the notorious Rikers Island complex dominated headlines this fall – and those plans got a boost from Albany, in the form of new laws that are expected to seriously reduce the number of New Yorkers detained before trial. But debate continues on that law, and other related measures. Here’s a preview of the biggest criminal justice issues of the 2020 state legislative session.

Pretrial reforms

New laws limiting cash bail don’t take effect until Jan. 1, but a legislative battle is already brewing over whether there should be amendments to the far-reaching reforms that passed as part of the state budget deal earlier this year. The new bail law basically abolishes cash bail for all but the most serious felonies and misdemeanors, and requires judges to give criminal defendants the most lenient form of pretrial detention possible. Critics say this will endanger public safety – although those same defendants are already eligible for release under the existing system if they can afford bail. One bipartisan effort seeks to reopen the debate over whether the “dangerousness” of a criminal suspect should be considered when determining whether a defendant is released pretrial. While that proposal has traction among moderate Democrats and has become a talking point for Republicans, it is a non-starter for progressive Democrats who kept it out of the original legislative package. 

But that’s not to say Democrats are set on sticking with the laws as written. Both state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris and state Senate Codes Committee Chairman Jamaal T. Bailey have signaled they are open to revisiting the reforms once they’ve taken effect.

Local governments and prosecutors may have more luck with securing additional funding to comply with – rather than tweaking – the new legislation, which also includes speedy trial and discovery laws mandating that prosecutors and courts move faster to try suspects and more readily disclose evidence before and during trial. Gianaris, a leading proponent of the criminal justice reforms, recently told reporters that he would be willing to discuss higher funding levels.

Solitary confinement

Among the biggest disappointments for criminal justice reform advocates in the previous session was the failure to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long-term Solitary Confinement Act. Though they are pushing for legislative leaders to again take up the bill – which would limit solitary confinement in local jails and state prisons to 15 days – on the first day of the upcoming session, there have been no indications that state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie will do so. The state Legislature could take up the bill later, though Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already taken administrative action to limit the use of solitary confinement. Like other criminal justice issues, the issue of solitary confinement divides progressive activists and unions that represent police and corrections officers as well as moderate Democratic lawmakers wary of appearing soft on crime. Solitary confinement has become an issue for several left-wing primary challengers targeting incumbent Democrats.

Repealing 50-a

Talk of repealing state Civil Rights Law Section 50-a has heated up even further following the August dismissal of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2014. Section 50-a, in many cases, keeps secret the identities of police officers accused of wrongdoing, and criminal justice reform-minded Democrats have pushed for its repeal for years. Bailey, the Codes Committee chairman and sponsor of the repeal bill, calls it his top priority. Cuomo has more or less been quiet on the issue, but Pantaleo’s firing – along with a pair of contentious public hearings this fall – may force him to take a side. The primary opposition comes from the police unions, who claim too much disclosure would put their officers at risk. Though NYPD leaders support reforming the law and not repealing it, some lawmakers may be wary of facing the wrath of the police unions.

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Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.