ALBANY — Progressive groups are ramping up the pressure on Democratic state lawmakers to maintain their support for New York's decision to scrap cash bail for scores of crimes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the controversial measure may need changes.
The progressives argue the new law will save taxpayer money by decreasing local jail populations as defendants awaiting trial get to go home rather than wait in jails.
In an open letter to Cuomo and leaders of the Senate and Assembly Democratic conferences, a coalition of progressive groups urged the attempts to roll back bail changes by "regressive" district attorneys and legislators be rejected.
Buckling to "predictable fear-mongering will be a retreat from New York's position as a leader in criminal justice reform and will embolden opponents who prefer the status quo," the organizations said.
Among the more than 50 groups signing the letter were the New York Civil Liberties Union and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. The latter group is led by Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of slain U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and the ex-spouse of Cuomo.
The governor said this week he envisions changes to the bail legislation, though he has not introduced a bill to accomplish that.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-New York City, weighed in Thursday, signaling he sees no urgency to make any changes.
"Judicial discretion invites back in bias," Heastie contended, knocking a central argument of those who say the law goes too far in restricting the ability of judges to jail defendants who cannot afford bail money.
But some Democrats strayed from the argument the fledgling measure should be left intact.
State Attorney General Tish James told public radio station WCNY she plans to make recommendations for alterations.
The state's top lawyer acknowledged the top priority should be the strengthening of public safety. At the same time, James said the goal of ensuring that "all individuals are treated fairly" should be part of the mix.
Republicans want judicial discretion to be restored sooner rather than later.
If judges continue to be stripped of discretion to remand alleged offenders, New York communities are bound to become more dangerous, said Assembly Member Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls.
Before being elected as a lawmaker, Morinello spent 14 years as a city court judge, overseeing thousands of arraignments.
"The ultimate result of this is there is going to be less prosecution and more crimes going unanswered," he said in an interview. Morinello said some changes are needed to bring greater fairness to the criminal justice system, but only after there is input from a wide array of experts, including police and defense lawyers.
With all lawmakers facing re-election next November, George Arzt, a veteran political strategist, predicted there will be "tweaks that will not allow people who commit crimes to get out easily" after being charged with serious offenses.
In the Assembly, he said, Heastie will have to referee the debate between the moderates and progressives in his conference.
"A lot of people won't want to rock the boat until after they get re-elected," said Arzt.
He suggested one potential scenario could have lawmakers announcing a plan for amendments in the session that began this week, though they would not vote on it until after the election season.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.