ALBANY — Gov Kathy Hochul emphasized Wednesday that her proposal to equip judges with more discretion to jail defendants at arraignments is intended to deal with a relatively small group of lawbreakers who are responsible for a “disproportionate” share of serious crimes in New York.
Speaking to reporters in the Red Room of the state Capitol, Hochul said her legislative agenda is also intended to end “confusion” in state law that has left some judges wondering about the circumstances in which they are authorized to order that defendants be locked up.
Hochul also insisted that “public opinion is clearly on the side” of her push to provide clarification for the judges.
Hochu said it was appropriate to evolve from a system of cash bail, arguing it created hardships for the economically disadvantaged while benefiting those with sufficient funds to post bail as a way to avoid being locked behind bars.
“That was the injustice that was behind the whole effort to eliminate parts of the bail laws,” she said.
The governor’s proposal would do away with wording in the law that requires judges to use the “least restrictive” standard in deciding what to do with a defendant appearing on a criminal charge.
“I should make it clear that we’re not incarcerating people for low level crimes or criminalizing poverty but giving judges the discretion necessary to ensure public safety,” Hochul said.
The least restrictive standard judges must consider is “contradictory” with another section of law that outlines the areas a judge may consider in order to jail a defendant, she said.
“Their confusion is understandable,” Hochul said of the judges. “I want to remove any question about whether a judge has discretion to set bail or remand individuals, meaning hold them if they’re accused of a serious crime. I want to make it absolutely clear that judges have both the authority and the accountability for these important decisions, and that’s why I proposed a very simple change.”
But getting the Democratic-led Assembly and Senate to embrace the proposal may not be so simple.
The loudest voices of opposition to Hochul’s initiative are coming from lawmakers representing the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.
“We don’t need more people locked up behind bars,” said Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, D-Brooklyn. Last year, Walker staged a hunger strike in protest of rollbacks to a more lenient bail law.
“We need more resources,” Walker said. “We need investments in violence prevention, substance use treatment, housing, pretrial intervention and alternatives to incarceration.”
Hochul, at her briefing, highlighted newly available 2022 crime data for New York.
While the number of murders statewide dropped by 11% from 2021 to 2022, so-called index crimes, which refers to all serious crimes, increased in that same period, Hochul said.
“That’s a trend we’re trying very hard to put in the other direction, but it’s not there yet,” she said.
The state, she said, is spending $70 million to help communities plagued by shootings, and another $31 million for gang prevention programs. Funding is also being provided for four classes of State Police recruits, up from two classes per year, while the state is expanding the number of community stabilization units to deal with crime.
Hochul said her push for bail law amendments a year ago led to the state budget being nine days overdue. The deadline again this year is March 31, and some lawmakers say they are bracing for the possibility of a spending plan agreement being elusive for several more weeks.
Hochul suggested she is poised to deal with either an on-time or a late budget scenario.
“I feel confident we’ll be able to achieve an on-time budget, but if we don’t, it’ll be because there are continuing discussions about matters that I consider extremely important,” she said.
Bail has been a contentious topic in state politics for the last five years, with Hochul’s rival in last year’s governor’s race, Lee Zeldin, then a GOP congressman from Long Island, making it a top issue in his campaign.
Zeldin argued for scrapping the system of cashless bail, maintaining it was fueling a crime wave. He won most upstate counties but got clobbered by Hochul in the Democratic-dominated New York City metropolitan region.
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