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Rethinking Bail

A security fence surrounds the inmate housing on New York's Rikers Island correctional facility in New York.

ALBANY — State Republicans announced legislation and decried an overhaul to New York's bail law on Thursday, deepening a political battle as widespread changes to the state's criminal justice system go into effect at the beginning of next year.

The bail law, passed by lawmakers earlier this year, eliminates pre-trial detention and money bail for the wide majority of misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases. The move is expected to curtail the number of people held in jail while awaiting trial.

State Sen. Sue Serino said lawmakers rushed to reform and "failed to consider the very real danger that these sweeping changes will have on communities."

Reform supporters argue the bail law will prevent poor people from languishing in jail for low-level crimes while their cases work through the system. They say it will also create a fairer system and stop prosecutors from using incarceration to pressure a defendant into a plea agreement. Being free also allows a person to better prepare for their case, advocates said.

Republican state Sen. Patrick Gallivan and Serino plan to introduce two new bills on how the state handles bail. One bill would allow judges to consider an arrestee's dangerousness when deciding bail. And the second bill will seek to expand what crimes are considered domestic abuse offenses for the purpose of setting bail, Gallivan said.

Language for neither bill was available online early Thursday afternoon.

More than 2,000 inmates in New York City's jail system alone would be released under the new bail law, according to a report from the Center for Court Innovation that analyzed a population snapshot from April.

New York's bail law recently caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who tweeted that New York's Democratic governor and mayor are letting out criminals, "some hardened & bad, onto the sidewalks of our rapidly declining" city.

Sharp criticism from state Republicans comes amid a larger battle over how counties will implement bail and discovery reform. A group of upstate New York district attorneys have raised concerns over the rollout of a new criminal justice law that aims to give defendants more information about their cases. The prosecutors argued they will need more funds to implement the legal changes.

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At a press conference on Thursday, opponents to the bail law argued it will leave domestic abuse victims vulnerable and give arrestees an opportunity to reoffend.

"When we go from zero to 100, we are completely leaving out victims," Gallivan said. "We're completely leaving out communities."

Amy Jones, a community organizer with Citizen Action of New York, accused Republicans of fear mongering after the press conference Thursday.

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"What is the difference between an abuser that can post bail and (an) abuser that cannot post bail — they're just poor people," she said.

In some parts of New York, prosecutors say they have already moved away from requesting bail for low-level crimes.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said he shifted the way his office handled bail about a year and a half ago, telling his prosecutors to no longer ask for bail on misdemeanor or non-violent felony cases without good reason. Since then, Flynn said he hasn't heard any concerns that there's been a spike in bench warrants because arrestees have not returned for court dates.

Flynn said he disagreed with certain portions of the bail law, but said they will have to wait and see what its impact will look like.

"I personally don't see the world coming to an end," he said.

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