Cuomo's bail plan complicates budget talks

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSNew York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, talks as Robert Mujica, budget director of the State of New York, listens in this Feb. 11, 2019 file photo.  

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to end the use of cash bail for a wide variety of criminal offenses has complicated state budget negotiations and drawn opposition from some prosecutors along with numerous sheriffs and GOP lawmakers.

Veteran Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney, a Democrat, said Cuomo's proposal would require judges to free defendants charged with child pornography, white collar financial schemes and hurling a cinderblock from a bridge overpass.

"Bail reform must be sensible and not tie judges' hands in ways that jeopardize public safety," Carney told reporters.

Cuomo told a public radio interviewer Wednesday that both his bail measures and his proposal to legalize recreational marijuana should be wrapped into the $175 billion spending plan now being negotiated with lawmakers.

Cuomo said marijuana tax revenue and a proposed internet sales tax are both needed in the budget to help fund his initiatives, including a controversial program that seeks to relieve traffic congestion in New York City.

Similar bail proposals have previously run aground in the Senate when the upper house was under GOP control. But Democrats are now running both houses of the Legislature, following last year's "blue wave" election results.

Several Republican senators acknowledged that improvements could be made to the criminal justice system, but argued Cuomo's repeated use of the word "reform" to market the package is unwarranted, as his proposals would not fund the additional probation officers counties would need to monitor defendants released after arraignment.

Contending the governor's proposal "goes too far," Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, said judges should have discretion to make decisions that reflect public safety considerations.

"Any accused person should have due process, but we also need to respect the victims of crime and those who protect us on a daily basis -- our law enforcement, prosecutors and judges," Seward said.

Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan, R-Long Island, was adamant in contending bail proposals be delayed until lawmakers complete the more immediate task of passing a budget. By law, a spending plan is supposed to be in place by April 1.

"This is a classic example of haste makes waste," Flanagan said.

Recognizing the complexity of the bail measures and other criminal justice proposals, influential Democrats, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-the Bronx, and Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, the chairman of the Codes Committee, have both signaled that they are open to addressing those initiatives outside the scope of the budget talks.

In his State of the State speech three months ago, Cuomo, a Democrat, identified the proposed updates to the bail laws as a top priority, suggesting progressive measures are attainable as a result of his party holding the key seats of statehouse power.

"We have a Democratic Senate, a Democratic Assembly, now is the time to make these changes,” the governor said. "There are no more excuses, my friends."

The New York State Bail Bondsman Association, one group that sees its membership as targeted by the Cuomo proposal, has been seeking to convince moderate Democratic lawmakers to reject the proposal.

Meanwhile, Carney noted several states that have moved away from cash bail systems saw fit to build in safeguards by including the use of "risk assessment tools" allowing the judiciary to weigh the potential dangers of releasing a defendant along with providing a "massive commitment of resources" for pretrial services.

"No district attorney I know believes that anyone should sit in jail awaiting trial solely because they lack financial resources to post bail," said Carney, who has repeatedly been re-elected since winning his district attorney job in 1989.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.