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New York poised to scale back cash bail reforms that angered law enforcement

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers appear poised to scale back a series of controversial changes to the state’s cash bail system that had angered law-enforcement officials since they took effect at the start of the year.

Cuomo and legislative leaders struck a tentative agreement early Thursday that adds a number of misdemeanor and felony crimes to the list of those subject to a cash bail order, which allows a judge to keep someone in jail while awaiting trial unless they pay a certain amount in cash or bond.

Lawmakers were expected to approve the measure as part of the state budget.

“The bail reform that we did last year, I’m very proud of because (the previous system) was discriminatory in effect and in impact,” he said. “I think we made the right change now and I think the improvements we’ve made this year are the right ones also.”

Among the more than a dozen crimes that would again be eligible for cash bail, according to the legislation:

¯ Any crime alleged to have caused a death

¯ Promoting an obscene sexual performance by a child

¯ First-degree grand larceny

¯ Failure to register as a third-degree sex offender

¯ Second-degree burglary if someone enters the living area of a home

¯ Escape from custody.

The measure would also allow a judge to apply cash bail for repeat arrests in some cases, including someone arrested for a felony while on probation or parole.

Last year, Cuomo and the Legislature approved a measure ending cash bail for most misdemeanors and Class E felonies, only allowing it to remain for most violent crimes. It took effect at the start of this year.

Supporters of the bail reforms last year said the state’s previous cash bail system unfairly punished the poor, forcing them to spend time behind bars at a time when they were presumed innocent just because they couldn’t afford to get out.

But law-enforcement officials criticized the reform laws en masse, highlighting cases this year where defendants were released only to quickly commit another crime after they got out.

The reforms forced jails throughout the state to release at least 3,000 people who were charged with a crime in 2019 and incarcerated while awaiting trial.

Supporters of last year’s bail reforms criticized Cuomo and lawmakers for rolling them back, accusing them of pushing them through during a budget negotiation process that was particularly opaque this year.

With the Capitol closed to the general public because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, pro-reform rallies that otherwise would have jammed the building were scaled back to online video conferences.

Lawmakers have largely been voting remotely on the state budget, save for just a few who are in the chamber to debate.

“Governor Cuomo is the only executive in the country to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to ram through rollbacks to bail reform that will increase jail populations throughout the state and further disrupt people’s access to the fragile social safety net,” said Paulette Soltani, political director for VOCAL-NY, an organization that advocates for low-income New York residents.

Even organizations representing the state’s sheriffs and police chiefs urged Cuomo and lawmakers to hold off this week, arguing in favor of a more deliberative process at a time that fosters more public participation.

Cuomo on Thursday said state policymakers have been discussing bail reform extensively for two years, dismissing criticism that the new changes were negotiated in secret.

Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, noted the new measures will take effect in 90 days, which she said was in part to prevent more people being kept in jail during the coronavirus crisis.

Legislative leaders began briefing their members on the proposed agreement to scale back the reforms Thursday morning. The Senate finished approving the budget Thursday afternoon, with the Assembly expected to finish Thursday night.

The budget deal also makes changes to the state’s discovery reforms, which were approved the same time as the cash bail reforms last year.

At the start of this year, prosecutors were required to hand over discovery materials — evidence collected against a defendant — within 15 days of an arraignment on charges.

Prosecutors argued the time frame was too onerous and could threaten some cases, particularly when the names of potential witnesses were handed over to defendants in gangs or organized crime.

As part of the state budget, lawmakers are set to vote on legislation Thursday that would scale back the discovery timeline to within 20 days of arraignment for misdemeanors and felonies when the defendant is in custody; and 35 days for misdemeanors and felonies when the defendant is not in custody.

For traffic violations and petty charges, the timeline will be 15 days before trial.

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