ALBANY, N.Y. — Last year, Democrats on Long Island were swept out of county office amid Republican attacks on New York’s new bail laws, which ended cash bail for all but the most violent crimes and exceptional circumstances.
The election defeats in suburban Nassau County, along with the victory of crime-fighting New York City Mayor Eric Adams, proved a wake-up call for state Democrats. Now they’ve agreed to a deal that will to scale back some of those 2019 bail reforms as a national surge in crime stokes fears of further state and federal election losses in the November midterms.
Across the nation, Democrats are feeling pushback on bold criminal justice reforms enacted just a few years ago — with New York’s the latest and most striking change in direction.
A movement that seized the conversation in states across the nation following the murder of George Floyd is losing its momentum. In Illinois, Republicans are urging Democrats to halt a law for no cash bail that takes effect next year. In California, voters last year rejected a ballot measure to end cash bail.
All of it is playing out as Democrats worry about losing control of the House and falling short in state legislative and governor races this fall.
“You hear me say it over and over again, public safety is a prerequisite to prosperity,” Adams, a Democrat who pushed for bail changes in New York, said Friday in a radio interview. “If we’re not safe, we’re not going to prosper as a city.”
There is no data showing that New York’s bail reform has fueled the spike in crime that has been evident across the country, and even Democrats who are seeking changes are quick to point that out.
But Republicans have successfully suggested a correlation to sway voters.
“Law and order has always been a powerful electoral weapon with voters, particularly when suburbanites are feeling insecure and at risk,” said Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University on Long Island.
“And Republicans have been able to weaponize bail reform, fair or not, in a way that has made a lot of moderate swing voters feel unsafe.”
A yearslong battle
Top Democrats in New York initially resisted changes to the bail laws in light of their other priorities this year. Progressive members vowed hunger strikes or “no” votes on the state budget should the laws be remade. But legislative leaders soon recognized at least some tweaks were needed, especially as Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul added her own pressure in recent weeks. Hochul, who replaced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in August, is running as a moderate as she seeks a full term.
It’s not the first time the state Legislature and governor revisited the 2019 laws. In 2020, lawmakers, expanded the list of bail eligible offenses. And this year, they made other tweaks — like allowing judges to impose bail for more gun crimes — without making some of the more sweeping changes that Adams, Hochul and some Republicans sought.
“I strongly believe the bail reform we did in 2019 and adjusted in 2020 did not result in the increase level of violent crimes we’re seeing,” said Assemblymember Harry Bronson, a Democrat from Rochester, which has long faced issues with gun violence.
“That being said, there were logistical problems that law enforcement was having with the appearance tickets and things of that nature. We’ve tried to make adjustments that will make that better for them.”
The agreement this year gives judges considering bail more discretion to take into account factors such as defendants’ gun records or whether they have violated an order of protection. It would also add certain gun crimes to the list of offenses that are eligible for bail and make it easier for police to arrest people who have received multiple appearance tickets in a short time period.
Those measures are in tandem with other criminal justice proposals Hochul has emphasized, including making it easier to charge someone with illegal gun trafficking and extending a state law that allows for courts to order someone struggling with severe mental illness to be committed involuntarily, called Kendra’s Law.
“We have to realize there are areas where improvements can and need to be made,” Hochul said Thursday when announcing the deal during a press conference in Albany.
“And so to the New Yorkers who are concerned about the rise in crime, we have put forth a comprehensive package that, again, achieves and continues the progress we’ve made in the past to make sure our criminal justice system is fair. And we are not moving backwards. We are moving forward with a thoughtful approach.”
The debate continues
The measures, though, were still not enough for Republicans and even Adams. They lost attempts to allow judges to set bail based on a so-called dangerousness standard, which critics say leads to race-based decisions.
“Dangerousness was one piece of the proposal that I submitted,” Adams told reporters April 1. “And I know Albany; I was in Albany. I know that when you go up there, you negotiate; you try to find a middle ground.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Long island Republican running for governor, accused Hochul of appeasing progressive Democrats with a watered-down bail reform plan.
“Hochul initially left changes to cashless bail out of her original budget proposal, waited until she got bad polling and booed and roasted in Madison Square Garden during her infamous puck drop, made a weak initial ask, and then got rolled by the far-left to settle for almost nothing,” Zeldin said in a statement, referring to Hochul’s inauspicious reception at a New York Rangers game last month.
On the party’s left, the bail changes drew sharp rebukes, with progressives saying changes to the original laws take back advances the state made in protecting people from low-income and minority communities from discrimination in the criminal justice system. Two reports last month — one from the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice and one from the Democratic city comptroller — said there was no clear connection between recent crime increases and bail reform.
“In a moment of real anxiety about public safety, the conversation on bail reform has become divorced from the data, which shows essentially no change in the share of people rearrested while released pretrial before and after the implementation of the 2019 bail reforms,” New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said in a statement last month.
Brooklyn Democratic Assemblymember Latrice Walker criticized the deal after being one of the architects of the 2019 reforms.
Walker said in a statement that the latest changes will “roll back progress the state has made toward ending the criminalization of poverty” because the initial law ended cash bail in most cases.
“Now more than ever, it’s critical that we do not allow political distractions to undermine effective, evidence-based policy,” she said. “Putting forward the wrong solutions won’t get us the right results.”
But leaders rejected the notion that the changes this year were done for political reasons, or to satisfy more moderate members concerned about reelection in districts struggling to combat crime.
“There’s always concern about the crime issue, but if you’re asking if it was political in nature, no,” Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris (D-Queens) told reporters at the Capitol last week.
“No, we got slammed by opponents in 2020 on bail, and we won all those seats on Long Island. 2021 was a different year. Yeah, the climate nationally is different. Every election is different,” Gianaris said. “So yeah, I’m sure they’ll come again as they did in 2020 when we won the largest majority of the states ever had, and we’ll deal with it in the fall.”
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