Republican lawmakers held a press conference outside the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside to raise an alarm on the rollout of criminal justice reforms passed by Democrats in Albany this year. Photo: Julia-Anna Searson

Criminal justice reforms that take effect tomorrow put public safety at risk, according to Republican members of the state legislature, who called a press conference this morning outside the criminal court building and correctional facility in Riverside to sound an alarm.

The new laws eliminate cash bail for all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, requiring police to issue appearance tickets to people arrested for an array of alleged crimes, including manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and nearly all drug crimes.

They also impose new disclosure requirements on police and prosecutors that opponents say jeopardize victims and witnesses.

“We voted against every one of these fake criminal justice reforms,” State Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan said. “The public is going to be less safe as a result of the enactment of these laws by one-party rule,” he said.

The criminal justice reform package was passed as part of the legislature’s budget bill in March. There were no hearings on any of the legislative proposals, Flanagan said — “no input from corrections officers, law enforcement or us,” he said. “The Democrats own this.”

Democrats in control of both houses of the State Legislature and the executive office pushed through an agenda — including the criminal justice reform measures — without Republican support.

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo speaking at a press conference outside the Suffolk County Correctional Facility Dec. 31. Photo: Julia-Anna Searson

Second District Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) called 2019 “the year of the defendant.”

Palumbo said comparisons to the law already in effect in New Jersey were “disingenuous.”

“This does not mirror New Jersey,” Palumbo said. The New York proposal, like New Jersey’s law, originally had a “level of dangerousness assessment.” There was a presumption of release, he said, but the criminal court judge had discretion to determine a person was dangerous and should be required to post bail.

But the Democrats decided to eliminate that, Palumbo said, removing all discretion from the local judge.

“If I sold enough Fentanyl to kill the city of Albany I’d be home before the police officer who arrested me,” he said.

“This is unsafe,” Palumbo, a former prosecutor, said. “In session 2020 this needs to be fixed.”

Lou Viscusi, president of the Suffolk County Corrections Officers Association, said his experience working in the jail for over 20 years, gives him firsthand knowledge of “just how dangerous these people are the are being let back into our communities.”

“They’re not just shoplifters or good people that had a bad day,” Viscusi said. “They are criminals with long rap sheets —
drug dealers, sex offenders and gang members that have proven they will recommit every chance they get.”

Viscusi said judges have been applying the new rules for the past two months “to avoid a mass release.” As a result, he said, the jail’s population count is down about 300.

Republicans have introduced bills that would establish a one-year moratorium on the new laws.

In the face of mounting public backlash, some Democrats have also begun to express concerns. South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I, D- Sag Harbor) introduced a bill that would expand the list of crimes that judges have discretion to require bail for.

But the governor and Democratic leadership do not want to revisit the issues, Flanagan said.

“It is change, and change is often opposed by the system,” Cuomo said in a news conference earlier this month. “This change has been done by other states … The wheels did not fall off the car.”

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.

Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy decried the financial impact of the changes on local municipalities.

“Town and village justice courts will be absolutely overwhelmed by the economic impact,” Kennedy said. “They cannot absorb it.
We are an eyelash away from financial collapse now,” he said. “This is the governor pushing us further over the edge.”

Riverhead Town Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she is very concerned about the “unfunded mandate,” but in addition to that, “downtown businesses are already being affected in that this law comes without any funds for transportation or transportation to get back to where they live or committed the crime,” she said.

“A solution is an expedited review of three judges, within 3 days, to determine if bail is warranted based on the crime,” Giglio said.

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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.