A new law takes effect Jan. 1 that will eliminate pretrial detention and cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies in New York State. Photo: Adobe Stock

With sweeping criminal justice reforms adopted by the state in April about to take effect Jan. 1, local officials and some state lawmakers are looking to delay their implementation.

The criminal justice reform package adopted April 1 as part of the State Legislature’s omnibus budget bill eliminates money bail and pretrial detention for nearly all misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases. See prior story: “New state law eliminating cash bail for misdemeanors, nonviolent felonies will have public safety and budget impacts, officials say” (May 1, 2019).

Beginning Jan. 1, people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies will be issued a desk appearance ticket by police, requiring the defendant to appear in court on a future date.

Money bail and detention are still permitted in virtually all violent felonies, except for specific sub-sections of burglary and robbery in the second degree. Bail and detention are also permitted for Class A felonies, most of which also involve violence. But bail and detention are eliminated for all Class A drug felonies, with the exception of operating as a major trafficker.

The purpose of bail is to secure a defendant’s return to court. But people who are arrested and cannot afford to post bail are incarcerated before there’s any adjudication of guilt — often for long periods of time. Six out of 10 people in U.S. jails — nearly half a million people — are awaiting trial, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The money bail system disproportionately impacts African-Americans and Hispanics, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute, which advocates for bail reform. “Compared to white men charged with the same crime and with the same criminal histories, African-American men receive bail amounts 35% higher; for Hispanic men, bail is 19% higher than white men,” PJI says.

Local communities spend at least $14 billion every year to detain people who have not been convicted of the charges against them, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative.

The reforms were pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic majorities in the State Assembly and State Senate.

Republican legislators, including State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), opposed the bill, which passed largely along party lines. It was signed into law by the governor on April 12.

Law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and local criminal court judges have expressed concern about eliminating the court’s discretion to set bail in a broad array of cases. Locally, town officials are also worried about the extra costs the town government will bear to comply with provisions of the law that require the justice court to remind defendants of their upcoming court dates and to execute warrants if the defendants fail to appear in court.

Last month, Palumbo announced he is sponsoring legislation that would fully repeal the bail reform measure, citing concerns about removing judges’ discretion to determine if bail is warranted.

Palumbo said he and members of the Republican conference are also concerned about the crimes considered “non-violent” under the new law and therefore no longer eligible for bail. They include manslaughter in the second degree, money laundering in support of terrorism, failure to register as a sex offender, promoting an obscene sexual performance by a child and aggravated cruelty to animals.

In an interview last week, Palumbo said he does not see the Democratic majority allowing the minority’s bill to move forward. A former prosecutor, Palumbo said “legislators have no experience, no regard for the practical impacts” of what was enacted.

“The pendulum has swung too far,” Palumbo said. “The unintended consequences are going to be terrible.”

On Monday, South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) announced he is cosponsoring a bill introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Steve Stern of Dix Hills that would expand the list of qualifying offenses for which judges will have additional discretion to set bail to include: additional violent felony offenses; additional Class A felony drug offenses; certain felony drug offenses involving the use of children; felony sex crimes and certain incest crimes; certain conspiracy crimes; certain terrorism crimes; certain sex crimes involving children; certain offenses against public administration; certain offenses against public order; public sensibilities and the right to privacy, organized crime and animal cruelty offenses.

On Tuesday night, the Riverhead Town Board passed a sense resolution asking the state to delay implementation of the criminal justice reform law passed in April.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she is concerned that when the law goes into effect Jan. 1, it will mandate the release from jail of all defendants being held before trial on charges for which bail can no longer be required. Giglio says this will impact downtown Riverhead, because when defendants are released from the jail in Riverside without transportation or money to get back to their home communities, they’ll end up in Riverhead.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.