Cuomo backpedals on bail law amid backlash

Associated Press Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City in this May 1, 2018, file photo.

ALBANY — With New York's new bail law facing criticism from police executives and prosecutors, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pivoted away from his strong support for the legislation, acknowledging it as a "work in progress" now facing alteration.

Cuomo thus joined New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in contending the statute may have gone too far to bring greater balance to a criminal justice system that progressive reformers argue is a stacked deck that keeps poor defendants behind bars without having been convicted of a crime.

Cuomo agreed with the thrust of that criticism, telling a business group in New York City: "Justice was never supposed to be who has money in their pockets gets out."

But even as he acknowledged reforms are needed, he said rebuilding criminal justice is "complicated and then has a number of ramifications."

"There is no doubt this is a work in progress and there are other changes that have to be made," he said.

While he provided no specifics, he has signaled he wants he wants to see hate crimes restored as an offense for which judges could set bail.

State GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy, in an interview with CNHI, skewered Cuomo and Democratic legislators for "doublespeak" on the issue and insisted the law that took effect New Year's Eve be repealed in its entirety.

"What this really is is a failure in progress," he said, noting a convicted bank robber arrested last week for a new violent robbery is among those who qualified for immediate release from custody.

Another Republican, Assemblyman Mike Reilly of Staten Island, calling the new law a "disaster," urged Cuomo use his executive powers to nullify some provisions.

But Cuomo suggested caution was in order as the new law "just went into effect a couple of days ago."

One influential Democrat, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Westchester, announced she has filed legislation to restore the ability of judges to determine if a defendant is potentially dangerous.

“I am particularly concerned that judges have lost the ability to impose bail on violent and potentially violent perpetrators of hate crimes and domestic violence," Paulin said.

A similar bill has been filed by Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Schenectady County. In the North Country, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, is one of a small number of Democrats who has been vocally opposed to the end to cash bail for most offenses.

Progressive activists voiced disappointment some Democrats now want to retool the law after fighting on behalf of bail reform a year ago.

"It's pretty ridiculous to see the governor stating he would be willing to go back on certain things," said Erin George, civil rights campaigns director for Citizen Action of New York, a progressive group.

Stanley Fritzen, a campaign manager for Citizen Action, predicted the law would lower the crime rate and begin to address the disparities that have made inmates from black and Latino communities the bulk of the prison population.

"This law has helped people go home and wait for their trial instead of having to sit inside because they can't get out," Fritz said.

Among those stoking public opposition to the law was the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. The group drew attention to the bail fight on social media by posting a string of news articles about defendants arrested for alleged involvement in anti-Semitic incidents, assaults and threats — only to be freed from custody with no bail requirement.

And in just two days, more than 42,000 people joined a social media group, Repeal Bail Reform, launched by Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy. The group's Facebook page provided a forum for debate and criticism of the law and the state officials who support it.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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