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Don’t push criminal justice reforms through with budget

Unless the state is suddenly willing to attach money to help local police departments and prosecutors meet its criminal justice reform guidelines, changes to the system should be removed from the state budget process.

The reason is simple: The law was written and passed last year as part of the budget process, and that is a big reason why it is flawed. Trying to fix it as part of the same rushed budget process, with little public input, likely would doom state residents to make yet another attempt to fix the reforms next year.

Dozens of pieces of legislation have been introduced, dating back to last fall, that present a variety of lawmakers’ opinions on criminal justice reform. Some want to tweak the system a little bit. Some want to repeal the 2019 criminal justice reform legislation and start over again. There is no way to make all of those legislators — or their constituents — happy, but a public process at least puts all of the suggestions and proposals out for discussion publicly on the floor of the Legislature, rather than letting the discussion be driven behind closed doors by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins — and then railed through the Legislature in the midst of thousands of pages of budget bills.

We highly doubt there is any state money coming to help prosecutors and police meet the state’s changes to discovery rules, not with the state facing a budget deficit. That makes changes to the state’s criminal justice statutes a program bill, not a spending bill.

Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past by ramming criminal justice reforms through the Legislature as part of the budget. Legislators should debate criminal justice reform on its own merits. Doing so might result in a piece of legislation worth passing.

In general, this goes for all program bills not related to state spending. We understand why state leaders often co-opt these into the budget process — to use them as bargaining chips, and to ram through laws with little public discussion — both those reasons are simply not satisfactory to the public. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and if it can’t be done properly now, don’t lose your patience. Try again some other time.

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