A Column of News & Comment by Senator James L. Seward

As we approach the start of 2020, there are a number of new laws that will take effect in New York State. Among them are provisions I am deeply concerned about that will put public safety at risk. The measures include:

  • Bail changes that will allow 90 percent of individuals arrested to walk free without posting bail;
  • New discovery laws that put increased demands on local prosecutors and could put crime victims and witnesses in danger.

These so-called “criminal justice reforms” put criminals first. When the measures were proposed in Albany, I spoke with district attorneys and law enforcement officials in my senate district to gather information and gauge their thoughts on the changes. Many legal experts pointed out the dangerous, unintended consequences associated with these laws. I voted against the proposals.

While I am open to discussing changes that could better address the way bail is utilized, these laws go too far. Starting on January 1, perpetrators arrested for manslaughter, assault, criminal possession of a gun, and a number of drug sale offenses will all be released without bail. These suspects will be back on the streets immediately even if they have a criminal past.

Judges will no longer have the ability to consider a defendant’s criminal history when determining bail. This is of particular concern in domestic violence cases. A suspect will be released immediately, sent back into the community unsupervised, and have the ability to encounter the victim, the victim’s loved ones, and others.

When California became the first state in the country to eliminate cash bail, they provided for safeguards to ensure the protection of the community, including allowing courts to order defendants to report to a court officer or consent to monitoring such as ankle bracelets, as well as allowing preventive detention for those the court deems too dangerous to release. New York’s new reforms include none of these safeguards.

Along with the serious public safety concerns posed by the lack of bail, new discovery laws will force several unfunded mandates on our county district attorney offices and police departments. Small rural departments that are already understaffed and underfunded will need to hire personnel and purchase new computer systems to comply with new deadlines and requirements. In the end, taxpayers will be footing the bill to help with the defense of suspected criminals.

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York says it will cost $100 million for extra staff and other resources for offices outside of New York City to comply with the new discovery laws.

Recently, the New York State Sheriff’s Association, Association of Chiefs of Police and the District Attorneys Association held press conferences around the state calling for a delay in implementing these new laws. The New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM) is also calling on the state to hold off on the changes until sufficient time is allowed to fully understand the negative effects and to make the necessary corrections.

I am co-sponsoring legislation to address the concerns regarding the changes in the bail and discovery laws:

  • S.6839 – giving judges discretion to set bail in domestic violence cases;
  • S.6840 – allowing judges to consider whether a defendant poses a danger to the community when determining bail;
  • S.6849 – repealing criminal justice reforms enacted in the 2019-20 state budget including bail and discovery changes;
  • S.6853 – placing a one-year moratorium on criminal justice reforms to hold statewide hearings on the measures.

Earlier this year, I helped advance several bills to protect crime victims and keep our communities safe. Those bills, known as the Crime Victims’ Justice Agenda, never even received a vote. I will continue to advocate in favor of those measures in the upcoming legislative session. I will also be working to pass these new bills I am co-sponsoring to right a serious wrong and tilt the scales of justice back toward law-abiding citizens.