Making changes to New York's bail law is proving to be an increasingly difficult knot to untie in the state Legislature, where top Democrats are yet to embrace any proposals that Gov. Kathy Hochul wants included in the state budget.
The changes to the law that largely ended cash bail requirements for many criminal charges come as elected officials are trying to address increasing voter concerns over a rise in violent crime across the state.
A leaked plan last week showed Hochul pitching changes to top lawmakers in the Democratic-led Legislature that would expand a measure that requires people in a mental health crisis, as well as expand the criminal charges that a judge can set bail for a defendant.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, a prominent supporter of criminal justice law changes backed by progressive advocates when he was a state senator, insisted the changes Hochul is seeking are relatively modest compared to a broad menu of proposals to address public safety.
"We are talking with the Legislautre on all proposals," Benjmain said, adding the controversial "dangerousness" standard is not being included for judges. "The governor believes we should have a scalpel-like approach here. We should only try to address things that would meaningful address what we're seeing in our streets."
Hochul has previously called for a range of measures to better fund criminal justice law changes like making evidence discovery available on a faster basis. Hochul has also thrown her support behind a bill to seal criminal records of people who have completed their criminal sentences in order to help them obtain a job and housing.
Benjamin added the budget is the preferred vehicle for Hochul to get the more sweeping criminal justice package.
"There are so many issues that we'll look to deal with, including increasing funding, and so we want to do that in the budget," he said.
Benjamin has emerged as a potentially key official for the governor's administration this month with his former colleagues in the Legislature as the state budget discussions take shape. He met privately with Democrats in the Legislature earlier this week.
But the talks surrounding the bail issue remain sensitive for Democrats as advocates press back against the changes. The progressive advocacy organization FWD.us on Tuesday morning announced it would launch a six-figure ad campaign to oppose any changes.
The bail law was initially put in place in 2019 in order to reduce the number of defendants — often poor and people of color — from the amount of time spent waiting in jail for trial or a case to be adjudicated. Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers have called for changes, linking the issue to the rise in crime.
But supporters of the law say those links are inaccurate as crime has risen over the last year in conjunction with the pandemic. Earlier on Tuesday morning, Benjamin would not take questions on the issue and refused to speak with reporters.
"I should have stopped and spoken to the press, I want to be clear about that," he said later in the day. "I respect the work you do. I think it's important we as leaders of the state should be accountable to the press, accountable to the public."
Top legislative Democrats are not supportive of the proposed changes. Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris called the proposal from the Hochul administration "more of a political document than anything else" during an interview with WCNY's "The Capitol Pressroom."
Ana María Archila, a progressive candidate for lieutenant governor challenging Benjamin in a Democratic primary, blasted the changes while attending a rally with the organization Citizen Action.
"The reforms were hard-fought and earned, the reforms to a very inhumane bail system that criminalized poverty, were really important," she said.
Rep. Tom Suozzi, a rival of Hochul's for the Democratic nomination for governor this June, called the leaked package of proposals to address the bail law "tepid." The Long Island Democrat has called for changes, including the provision to allow judges to determine if a defendant is too dangerous to not be remanded.
"New York City has a crime crisis that Kathy Hochul has treated as an afterthought,” he said on Tuesday. “This past weekend, 29 people were shot in 24 different incidents. It’s Code Blue. The patient is on the table in cardiac arrest and Kathy Hochul’s response is 'take two aspirin and call me in the morning."
And Republicans have called for an open debate surrounding the issue. The governor on Monday remained vague about why she was seeking the bail law changes in the state budget, insisting she would not negotiate the specifics in the media.
“When you assumed office from our disgraced former Governor, you pledged ‘a new era of greater transparency and accountability’ yet you recently stated that you will not negotiate in public," Senate Minority Leader Robet Ortt wrote in a letter to Hochul. "To negotiate changes to one of the most consequential pieces of legislation enacted over the past decade behind closed doors, is not transparency; it’s secrecy."