Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined a five-point plan to reform the state's criminal justice system, including eliminating bail for certain offenses and banning civil asset forfeiture unless an arrest is made.
The criminal justice proposals were released Wednesday before Cuomo outlined his 2018 legislative agenda during the annual State of the State address.
The most notable change suggested by Cuomo is reforming the state's bail system and guidelines for pretrial detention. He will propose legislation to eliminate monetary bail for individuals who have been charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felony crimes. In place of bail, these individuals will either be released on their own recognizance or subject to pretrial reporting.
For individuals facing violent felony charges, judges would be permitted to set monetary or non-monetary bail after reviewing the case and determining the defendant's financial situation. If a judge sets monetary bail, defendants must be given an opportunity to pay with cash or bail industry bonds. Other forms of payment, such as unsecured or partially secured bond, will be options.
Cuomo's plan wouldn't completely eliminate pretrial detention. Under certain conditions, including domestic violence offenses and serious violent crimes, a judge could order a defendant to be held without bail if they are a flight risk or determine there is a safety threat to a "reasonably identifiable person."
The governor's office said the bail and pretrial detention reform will level the playing field for defendants and ensure actual threats to public safety are contained.
"The Empire State has always served as a beacon of equality and social justice, and with these actions New York is once again showing the nation the way forward," Cuomo said in a statement.
Other reforms proposed by Cuomo include expanding the discovery phase before a trial. The state's current discovery rules, according to Cuomo, are among the most restrictive in the country. He noted that New York is one of 10 states that allows prosecutors to withhold evidence until the first day of the trial.
Cuomo's proposal would require prosecutors and defense attorneys to share information, including evidence favorable to the defense, expert opinions, witnesses' criminal history and search warrants, incrementally before the trial.
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The plan also seeks to address the backlog in criminal cases. It would allow individuals being held in custody consent to a speedy trial waiver approved by a judge and require courts to review cases in which defendants are detained. The goal of the latter is to encourage a quicker conclusion to the case.
Cuomo also called for banning civil asset forfeiture unless an arrest is made and new reporting requirements for district attorneys and local law enforcement when the agencies seize an individual's property.
The last plank of the plan aims to improve the process for reentering society after being convicted of a crime. Cuomo proposed eliminating outright bans on occupational licenses for non-law enforcement positions. Under his plan, applicants would be assessed on an individual basis.
Driver's licenses would no longer be suspended after a drug conviction, which would allow individuals to drive to work and attend drug treatment sessions. The exception would be if the crime involved driving, then the license would be suspended.
For those in prison, Cuomo wants to expand release opportunities for inmates who have demonstrated their rehabilitation and could be eligible for merit release. He also proposed a new "geriatric parole" provision that would require the state Parole Board to review cases involving inmates over the age of 55 who have "debilitating or incapacitating medical conditions."
The criminal justice reforms are part of the 22nd proposal Cuomo released before his State of the State address. His office said it builds on prior legislative achievements, including raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York and closing more than a dozen state prisons.
"For too long, our antiquated criminal justice system has created a two-tiered system where outcomes depend purely on economic status — undermining the bedrock principle that one is innocent until proven guilty," Cuomo said. "This sweeping overhaul will transform our criminal justice system by removing critical barriers, reaffirming our beliefs in fairness, opportunity and dignity, and continue our historic progress toward a more equal society for all."
The proposals must be reviewed by the state Legislature. Most, if not all of the ideas are expected to be warmly received by the Democratic-led state Assembly. But state Senate Republicans, which typically want stiffer punishments for crimes, may resist the changes.