ALBANY – Lawmakers are expected to include tweaks to the state’s controversial criminal justice reform laws in the state budget, as legislators continue negotiating policy issues as part of the annual spending plan that had been due Tuesday.
The reforms, which had passed in last year’s budget and went into effect Jan. 1, eliminated the use of pre-trial detention and cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. It garnered swift backlash across the aisle, as critics – including Republicans, law enforcement leaders and a handful of moderate Democrats, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – have insisted the changes went too far and put dangerous criminals back on the streets.
The state’s district attorneys association also had lobbied lawmakers to reconsider the measures, which they said created onerous pre-trial discovery deadlines and triggered backlogs at state crime labs.
The proposed changes would allow judges to set bail for certain criminal charges, including sex trafficking and sex trafficking of a child, money laundering in support of terrorism, promoting obscene sexual performance by a child, domestic violence charges of criminal obstruction of breathing, strangulation and unlawful imprisonment, and aggravated vehicular assault and arson as a hate crime, among others.
Changes have been debated for weeks, and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie repeatedly defended the law and asserted that it helped balance a criminal justice system that had long disproportionately affected black and brown people.
The governor, alongside Senate Democrats, had proposed scrapping cash bail altogether in favor of a “remand” system in which judges could decide whether a person was a flight risk and detain them before trial. That judicial discretion was the top concern for Assembly Democrats, who claimed that any leeway would open the door for racial bias.
The plan that lawmakers are currently considering adds several new offenses to the list of bail-eligible crimes, including any crime alleged to cause the death of another person, aggravated vehicular assault and grand larceny, according to a briefing document given to Assembly members Thursday and obtained by the Times Union.
The bail reforms were just part of a sweeping criminal justice overhaul approved in the budget last year, which had also included new requirements for pre-trial discovery, including a new 15-day deadline to provide evidence to defense attorneys. Under the law, that evidence also includes a slew of new “discoverable” material, including the names and contact information of any person with information about a case and all electronic recordings related to an incident.
Prosecutors have argued that turning over the names of witnesses to defendants when investigations are still unfolding could endanger those individuals.
Under a proposal included in the education, labor and family assistance budget bill released Thursday morning, prosecutors would have 20 days to provide initial discovery when a defendant is in custody, and 35 days when they are not.
Under the proposed changes, copies of 911 calls and certain witness and victim information would also be “presumptively confidential” and only released if requested by the defendant, who shows a “need.” Traffic violations and other low-level crimes would also no longer be immediately subject to the increased discovery requirements.
The budget also includes $40 million, taken from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, to aid prosecutors and local law enforcement officials with the discovery mandates.