Democrats in the New York state Legislature want to address a range of public safety and criminal justice measures in the budget, including efforts to crack down on illegal gun trafficking and funding discovery law changes for local prosecutors.
Making changes to New York's law that largely ended cash bail requirements for many criminal charges is unlikely to be addressed in the spending plan that's due to pass by the end of the month.
Top Democratic leaders are less inclined as usual to include non-fiscal policy measures in the budget. On top of that, both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have been ardent supporters of the bail law.
They have argued Republican critics have wrongly ascribed the law to a sharp rise in violent crime seen across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers approved the bail changes in order to prevent poorer defendants from languishing in local jails as their cases await adjudication.
"We are at a point now where whatever happens, the people want to exploit the fact that we do not want to incarcerate people who are poor, everything becomes a matter of bail reform," Stewart-Cousins told reporters on Tuesday in Albany.
But recent polling has shown issues surrounding crime and public safety are now at the tops of voters' minds heading into an election season in which Republicans running up and down the ballot have pointed to as a key issue facing the state.
The state Senate's budget resolution approved on Monday included $40 million for community safety as well as violence prevention programs. District attorneys, meanwhile, praised the proposal to add funding to the implementation of a law meant to speed up evidentiary discovery in criminal cases.
In the Assembly, lawmakers want $15 million for addressing pre-trial services, such as job placement and drug treatment programs. There is an additional $212.5 million sent aside for indigent legal services as well grants for municipal and non-profit organizations to expand mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
Lawmakers also want to seal the criminal records of people who have completed their sentences in order to make it easier for them to obtain employment and housing — a proposal that has also been backed by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
"I think we're messaging correctly and we'll continue to work on these issues because we want New York to be the safest city as well," Stewart-Cousins said.
There have been bipartisan calls for making changes to the bail law. Former Assemblyman Joe Lentol, a lead sponsor of ending cash requirements, in an op/ed this month proposed allowing judges to set bail when there are mutliple open misdemeanor cases facing a defendant.
But criminal justice advocates have said any changes would perpetuate a system in which people of color are disproportionately kept in jail cells prior to any potential conviction.
For now, Hochul has largely left the bail issue to state lawmakers to negotiate, indicating she could consider whatever potential compromise emerges from the Legislature.
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have hammered Democrats over the issue.
“This resolution also takes us even further down the road of putting the needs of criminals and inmates before that of law-abiding citizens," said Sen. Mike Martucci. "It seals the criminal records of felons, gives tuition assistance to convicts, and does absolutely nothing to address the State’s failed and dangerous bail reform law that’s contributing to a statewide crime wave."