Lawmaker: Cuomo’s plan to make public safety risk part of bail decision unpopular with Assembly Democrats

Jeff Coltin

Decades ago, Republicans in Albany squashed efforts to have judges consider the danger of releasing a criminal defendant while deciding whether to grant bail, according to Assemblyman Joseph Lentol. Today, efforts to inject public safety assessments into the process are promoted by two of the state’s top Democrats – Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio – along with the GOP-led state Senate.

Lentol and the Assembly’s Democratic majority oppose considering public safety in release and bail decision protocols, the Brooklyn lawmaker said during a panel discussion at City & State’s On Public Safety event Wednesday. Currently, judges are instructed to consider a defendant’s flight risk, among other factors. But some criminal justice reform advocates fear that prompting judges to weigh the potential danger posed by a defendant could exacerbate the problem of jailing people who accused but not convicted of a crime and further institutionalize racism by elevating biases about who is a threat to public safety. A Cuomo administration official noted that the governor’s proposal would minimize bias by supplying judges with a risk assessment for defendants. His plan has been praised by some law enforcement officials, such as Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, and reform advocates like the Vera Institute.

“It was all Republicans that controlled the state Legislature in the 1960s and the commission was headed by a Republican assemblyman, and they decided against putting public safety into the bill – that bail should only be determined by flight risk,” the assemblyman said of the last major overhaul of bail laws in 1965. “… Most people now are advocating for public safety, and if you do that to judges, and you put public safety in the bill, nobody is getting out of jail – because they’re already afraid now to let anybody out.”

Lentol said his fellow Assembly Democrats want “liberal bail reform” that does not include the public safety provision, while Senate Republicans seem to solely want that provision  to advance. He noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a new bail reform policy out, but he had not had a chance to closely review it.

Cuomo’s budget briefing says New York should stop being one of four states that do not allow public safety to be factored into release and bail decisions. The administration argues the current approach leaves in jail some New Yorkers who do not present any public risk but cannot afford bail, which happened in the case of Kalief Browder, who spent several years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime.

Today’s system has also come under attack for failing to lock up dangerous individuals. De Blasio threw his support behind making public safety a factor in release and bail decisions after a man in a drug diversion program allegedly fatally shot NYPD Officer Randolph Holder in 2015.

Cuomo’s budget briefing last year included a similar plea for adding public safety assessments to the release and bail decision process, but no related legislation was introduced. An administration official said the governor’s team is currently seeking feedback from public safety officials, public defense groups, district attorneys and other stakeholders before formalizing forthcoming legislation.

Besides bail, participants on Wednesday’s panel said that the New York City Police Department has improved its relationship with communities, but that there was still room for improvement in policing and other criminal justice policies.

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, who spoke before the panel, described the department’s efforts to collaborate with communities through its neighborhood policing initiative. He noted that, anecdotally, more New Yorkers seem to see police in a positive light, but that the administration hopes to formally measure this through community feedback surveys.