Calls for bail reform revision grow more insistent

MIA SUMMERSON/staffNew York State Assembly Member Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, addressed the press Thursday morning to relay concerns with the state's recently-enacted bail reform legislation. He was joined by other Assembly Minority members who called on their colleagues to bring the matter back to the table for further discussion. 

BUFFALO — Members of the state Assembly Minority Conference are calling on Albany Democrats to reassess the state's recently-enacted bail reform law.

At a Thursday press conference, Republican lawmakers criticized the reform legislation for the nature of its passage — it was one part of a state budget bill — and what they say is its failure to consider impacts on public safety.

Assembly Member Joseph Giglio, R-Gowanda, emphasized that they're not opposed to reforming the bail system, but added that the state needs "to do it right." 

"Bail reform is a misnomer. This is an entire change of the criminal justice system," Giglio said. "Almost everything that has been traditional and used in the criminal justice system has changed and has made our communities a more dangerous place." 

Bail reform proponents have said the law would create a fairer criminal justice system for those who don't have the means to pay the bail set on them, specifically for non-violent crimes.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), who authored the Eliminate Bail Act, said the change would be a step toward limiting the amount of time that defendants spend time in jail without being found guilty of a crime. 

"These reforms will deliver justice to thousands of people incarcerated without a conviction," Gianaris said in March 2019, after his bill passed with the state budget. 

But Giglio said there needs to be more discussion about the law and called for it to be brought back to the table, so that input can be given by various stakeholders. He said New Jersey implemented its own bail reforms over a longer period of time and with more funding and training. 

Assembly Member Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, said in his 14-year tenure as a city judge, he spent a decade presiding over domestic violence cases and found that the most dangerous time for victims is immediately after police have been called on their abuser. Victims are at greater risk when police are unable to keep their abuser in custody, he added.

Morinello also pointed to a recent incident in which a witness in a case involving an MS-13 gang member was killed after the defendant was given the witness' home address. 

"Within 15 days of an arrest, the defendant has to be given the name of the witnesses, the addresses and contact information," Morinello said. "We cannot tolerate not having reforms that take into consideration that which is good that has been put out there already." 

Asked whether the bail reform law would be more acceptable if it applied only to people accused of non-violent crimes, Morinello advocated for returning power to judges to make such determinations.

He also addressed concerns that have been raised about judges being unfair and suggested a study be done to determine how frequently defendants are "abused by a judge." He said if a judge is accused of wrongdoing, "he goes before the commission and he's either going to be sanctioned, censured or removed." 

Assembly Member David DiPietro, R-East Aurora, asserted crime rates have already been trending upward since the law went into effect on Jan. 1. He said the minority conference has been asking that the matter be brought back to the table for "vetting" but that its efforts have been dismissed and Democratic conference leaders have been telling its members not to speak negatively about the law. 

"This is all bipartisan. We've seen Democrat district attorneys, law enforcement, judges, come out against this, screaming about this," DiPietro said. "We've been trying since last year to reform it, we're in the minority and we've been shut down — to the point now where, in Albany, the other side of the aisle has been told to shut up." 

Assembly Member Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua, said the law has had an especially significant impact on the same poorer communities that were meant to be helped by the elimination of bail, by releasing criminals back into the community. He also said instances of defendants not appearing for their court date have increased significantly. 

"In Jamestown, New York, my county, the number of defendants who failed to appear in January as a result of this new policy is up 70 percent," Goodell said. "That's not fear mongering, that's the truth.

"This policy increases that victimization in our poor minority communities. It releases dangerous individuals back on our streets. It does nothing to protect law-abiding individuals who have a right to be safe and secure in their own home." 

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