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Hochul Holds Up Budget Talks Over Demand to Fundamentally Change NY’s Bail Laws

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9:14 AM EDT on March 28, 2023

(Hell Gate)

The budget, which is due by the end of the week, is pretty much where all of Albany's business for the year is taken care of (see the Hell Gate Podcast's latest episode for why that is). And during the last four budget seasons, the governor and legislators have fixated on the state's bail laws, a set of guidance meant to help judges decide when and if they should send someone to jail before trial (see the Hell Gate Podcast episode two for more background on that). First, in 2019, the state legislature passed reforms meant to cut down on the number of people in jail for minor offenses, while the last few years, our governors have repeatedly attempted to roll those reforms back. This year is proving no different. 

While there are deeply pressing issues the state legislature should be addressing (a deepening housing affordability crisis, a transit system with a massive budget gap, an ongoing wave of evictions), Governor Kathy Hochul appears to be obsessed yet again with the state's bail laws, going so far as to hold up budget negotiations with the leaders of the state legislature over her insistence on further rolling back progressive reforms that were passed in 2019 to keep people with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies out of jail. 

City and State reports

The sources said that Gov. Hochul’s staff insisted on coming to an agreement regarding her proposal to make it easier for judges to set bail for violent felonies before discussing other parts of the budget, which is due April 1. Although staff for Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had not taken discussion of bail off the table, Heastie’s staff became frustrated at team Hochul’s unwillingness to talk about anything else in the $227 billion proposed fiscal plan and briefly stopped participating in the three-way negotiations.

The wording on this report is a bit tricky—judges already have wide discretion to set bail for people with violent felonies (and quite often do—around 80 percent of people on Rikers Island are incarcerated pretrial for violent felonies). What Hochul is seeking, however, is unprecedented. For decades in New York state, reports New York Focus, judges have only been allowed to consider a person's likelihood of returning to court when setting bail. They're not allowed to consider things like "dangerousness," which tend to reflect only the racial biases of the judge. Hochul wants to do away with all that, and give judges the ability to make decisions on whether to release people based on their previous criminal record, their personal life, and their charges. Basically, she wants to give judges the power to make a determination based on pretty much anything, and get rid of the guard rails in place that discourage judges from sending as many people to jail as they can. 

This isn't Hochul's first bite at the bail reform apple. Last year, she held up budget negotiations over the same issue and succeeded in further expanding judicial discretion for certain cases.

Hochul also almost lost her election campaign after she let conservatives (including our mayor) control the narrative and cause a panic over crime and bail reform, despite studies that have repeatedly shown that bail reform did not lead to an increase in crime. 

While Hochul has a chance to tackle huge problems facing the state, instead, she's once again focused on an issue that her own party has no interest in taking on. When New Yorkers need a governor that's actually serious about their real problems, she's tilting once again at made-up ones. 

Some links to start your "still very March" Tuesday: 

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