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Crime and punishment were factors in New York elections

ALBANY — Although no statewide offices were on the ballot in the general election, numerous candidates for legislative seats this year framed their platforms with attacks on controversial bail legislation signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Police unions jumped into the fray, opening their checkbooks to support candidates who want to roll back the legislation that restricts the ability of judges to set bail. The law has resulted in a dramatic lowering of county jail populations, with more defendants being released to communities instead of awaiting trials while behind bars.

Dems branded

Supporters of the revisions say the new law has brought fairness to a criminal justice system that overly relied on incarceration. But police executives say it has made New York more dangerous and been a factor in a wave of gun crimes.

Cuomo acknowledged the strident campaigns had an impact at the polls this week. The post-election consensus has been that Republicans, overall, exceeded expectations and are expected to pick up seats in both the state Senate and Assembly after all absentee ballots are counted.

“I believe the Republicans beat the Democrats on the messaging,” Cuomo told WAMC, an Albany radio station. “I think they branded Democrats as anti-law and order.”

He said that Democrats are “not anti-public safety,” but are instead “against the injustice in the criminal justice system. We’re against the racism and discrimination in policing.”

Stefanik comment

In the opening weeks of the year, the fight over the bail law was a dominant issue, with even congressional representatives at times weighing in. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican who represents the North Country, hammered the bail law, labeling it “extremely dangerous.”

But when the coronavirus pandemic reached New York in March, the bail issue took a backseat to the public health crisis.

Still, based on the election results, Patrick Phelan, president of the New York State Association of Police Chiefs, said it is clear public safety issues, including bail, influenced voters.

“What we saw was a direct result of some of the legislation that has been anti-law-and-order,” Phelan, chief of the Greece Police Department, told CNHI. “I think it will continue to be an issue in every coming election for the foreseeable future. Had it not been for the distraction of the COVID pandemic, I think the results would have been even better for the pro-law-and-order people.”

“Anti-police sentiment”

Democrats in control of both the Assembly and Senate this year moved to revise the bail law they had passed in 2019, allowing judges to evaluate defendants on whether they posed a risk to victims and others. But Phelan called that maneuver “damage control” that stopped short of ending the “revolving door” that was created in the criminal courts by the initial law.

Police unions, meanwhile, were unsuccessful in derailing Albany legislation that allows greater public transparency for police discipline records. Those unions ended up supporting challengers to Democratic incumbents who had backed that measure as well as the bail law.

“I think the anti-police sentiment that seems to be permeating is not popular with the electorate,” said Thomas Mungeer, president of the New York State Troopers PBA. He said his union, though it helped several Republicans, will continue to work with Democrats, calling Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, an ally.

Public concerns

In August, national survey by the nonprofit Pew Research Center found that violent crime is an important issue for 59% of voters, putting it just behind the coronavirus outbreak (62%), health care (68%), the economy (79%) on a list of topics capable of influencing votes. But more voters indicated they were concerned about crime than those who consider climate change, immigration, foreign policy and racial inequality as important topics, according to Pew.

George Arzt, a veteran New York political consultant, said that in regions of the state where Democrats and Republicans are competitive, the GOP was effective in injecting the bail issue into campaigns and tagging Democrats as “socialists.”

The fact that those campaign messages influenced some voters means that the Republicans will not let up on those themes, Arzt said.

“They will try to portray themselves as the law-and-order party and portray the Democrats as the party of looters,” Arzt said.

Criminal justice reform

Progressive Democrats, including several newly elected Assembly candidates aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America, are expected to seek more criminal justice reforms. There is ongoing debate at the state Capitol on measures that would create “elder parole,” designed to release inmates from prison when they reach age 55, and abolish solitary confinement.

Prison officials say they have reduced reliance on solitary confinement but continue to need it as a disciplinary tool. Critics of the practice say it is a form of cruelty.

Arzt said criminal justice measures could create a fissure within the ranks of the Democratic conferences.

“The more wary Democrats will look at what happened and take a more careful approach in terms of how they view bail reform or any legislation that handcuffs cops,” he said.

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