Hochul: New York bail reform law needs improvement

Politics

NEW YORK (NewsNation) — Despite criticism of bail reform in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul pledged to again tackle the politically sensitive issue during her first State of the State address.

Hochul outlined the plans during her annual speech, her first since New York Republicans gained electoral ground in November after casting their opponents as soft on crime.

“Bail reform is not the primary driver of a national gun wave or crime wave. It was created by a convergence of factors including the pandemic all across the nation, but I will also say we can agree that the bail reform law as written leaves room for improvement,” Hochul said Tuesday.

A sweeping bail law approved in 2019 did away with pretrial incarceration for people accused of most nonviolent offenses. Supported by progressives, the law has been tweaked since then amid criticism from Republicans and some moderate Democrats that it has deprived judges of a tool they could use to hold people likely to commit new crimes.

During Hochul’s campaign, the bail reform issue came up often, with her critics saying the bail reform laws allowed criminals to become repeat offenders, contributing to the state’s crime problems.

Tuesday, Hochul stood by the goal of bail reform but said lawmakers could not ignore New York residents who say crime is their top concern. The issue is widely believed to have cost Hochul and her fellow Democrats votes in the last election.

Some changes have already been made so that more criminal defendants can be sent to jail before their trials. Changes also allow judges to set bail for more gun crimes, hate crimes and repeat offenses. Hochul said she feels there’s room for more change. 

She called for a “thoughtful conversation” during the budget process to make improvements to the law.

For instance, judges are now required to choose the “least restrictive” means to ensure a defendant returns to court, as opposed to considering how dangerous they appear. Hochul favors eliminating that “least restrictive” standard for serious crimes, according to the governor’s plan.

State Sen. James Skoufis, a Democrat who long advocated for change in the bail reform law to give judges more discretion, said he was “heartened” to hear of the proposal.

But it was unclear how enthusiastic Democrats in control of the Legislature would be to reopen the bail debate.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has pushed Hochul before to change the state’s bail laws. He said the state’s bail system takes power away from judges and doesn’t keep some offenders behind bars long enough.

After Hochul’s speech Tuesday, he thanked the governor for doubling down “on the investment and innovation needed to keep New Yorkers safe.”

“At the same time, the investments to prevent recidivism and provide wraparound services will help address the feeders of criminal behavior — a critical prevention step,” Adams said.

New York’s Legal Aid Society critiqued Hochul’s plan to change bail reform laws. While a spokesperson lauded some of her plans, the group noted Hochul’s “call to eliminate a requirement that pretrial incarceration for bail-eligible charges be the ‘least restrictive’ option accomplishes nothing of value and is in tension with well-established United States Supreme Court precedent protecting the presumption of innocence.”

“As legislative leaders have noted, continuing to falsely scapegoat bail reform only distracts from community investments and reforms like the Treatment Not Jails Act and Clean Slate,” the Legal Aid Society spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Illinois is on the verge of becoming the first state in the nation to completely eliminate cash bail. The SAFE-T Act was supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1, but the Illinois Supreme Court placed the law on hold after a legal challenge. The court has scheduled arguments in the case for March.

Critics have said the lack of a cash bail system contributes to crime or increases the recidivism rate, but multiple studies have shown that’s not true and it hasn’t led to more people skipping their court dates.

At least 10 other states, excluding Illinois and New York, are considering how to make their bail reform laws less restrictive.

NewsNation affiliate WPIX contributed to this report.

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