The Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside File photo: Denise Civiletti

It’s been 10 days since sweeping new criminal justice reforms took effect and the controversial measures continue to draw fire from law enforcement, judges and Republican lawmakers.

Second District Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s silence on the issue during his State of the State address in Albany Wednesday afternoon.

“There should have been a plan with amendments presented today to members of the Legislature,” Palumbo said Wednesday after the governor’s speech.

“I think it is imperative we close the loopholes in the state’s bail reform efforts,” Palumbo said. “The fact that the governor and state Democrats failed to pass efficient legislation that does not include a level of danger assessment, effectively taking discretion away from our judges, is alarming,” he said.

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.

Many criminal court judges stopped remanding prisoners last month, in anticipation of the new rules taking effect Jan. 1.

The Suffolk County Correctional Facility started releasing inmates under the new law in December, when attorneys began petitioning for their clients ahead of time, a spokesperson for the county sheriff said Wednesday morning. A total of 301 inmates were released, the spokesperson said.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon, at a roundtable discussion at the Yaphank correctional facility Feb. 9, 2018. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. has called on the State Legislature to amend or repeal bail reform immediately.

“Judges MUST have discretion to determine bail based on a criminal defendant’s likelihood to re-offend and cause further pain to his or her victims and the public at large,” Toulon said in a press release Wednesday.

“Judges used to have some discretion on whether or not an individual should be held on bail,” he said. “Now, it is black and white – no bail for these crimes, regardless of the impact to the community. The offender will be given a court date and told to come back for court.”

This is true even where the offender has a history of recidivism — that is, being a repeat offender— Toulon noted.

Suffolk County’s inmate census dropped from 974 people on Dec. 1 to 758 on Jan. 8, according to the facility.

The governor, while he did not mention it during his State of the State address Wednesday, on Monday acknowledged the need to review and revise the new rules.

“There’s no doubt this is still a work in progress, and there are other changes that have to be made,” Cuomo told reporters Monday. “The Legislature comes back and then we’re going to work on it, because there are consequences you have to adjust for,” he said.

“Bail reform is right,” Cuomo said. “You have a criminal justice system that says if you’re arrested, if you can make bail you’re released, if you can’t make bail, you sit in Rikers for two years and get abused until you have your day in court.”

Advocates for elimination of cash bail argue that bail requirements unfairly affect poor people, who are jailed sometimes for long periods of time, even for minor offenses, because they can’t afford to post bail or a bond.

While many critics of the bail reform law agree that bail requirements for poor defendants can be unfair, they argue that judges should be given discretion to take a defendant’s past criminal history into account. They also argue that the list of crimes for which cash bail has now been eliminated is too expansive.

“Many of these crimes are surprising to N.Y. residents who do not find them to be ‘non-violent,’” the Suffolk sheriff said in his press release Wednesday.

The release listed crimes that are no longer subject to bail:

  • Assault in the third degree
  • Aggravated vehicular assault
  • Aggravated assault upon a person less than 11 years old
  • Criminally negligent homicide
  • Aggravated vehicular homicide
  • Manslaughter in the second degree
  • Unlawful imprisonment in the first degree
  • Coercion in the first degree
  • Arson in the third and fourth degree
  • Grand larceny in the first degree
  • Criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds or criminal possession of a firearm
  • Specified felony drug offenses involving the use of children, including the use of a child to commit a controlled substance offense and criminal sale of a controlled substance to a child
  • Promoting an obscene sexual performance by a child
  • Possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child
  • Promoting a sexual performance by a child

There have been a handful of reports across the state since the law took effect Jan. 1 of defendants being released on appearance tickets as required by the new law, only to commit another crime.

That has not happened yet in Riverhead Town, Police Chief David Hegermiller said this week.

Fears about a bulk release of prisoners as the law took effect were unfounded, he said. With the county’s medium security correctional facility located just outside downtown Riverhead, some local officials expressed concern of the impact such a release might have.

“The county jail in Riverside will be releasing approximately 400 prisoners,” Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said in an op-ed column last month. “Transportation or funds will not be given to those released. Where do you think they will go?”

The Riverhead Town Board on Dec. 17 unanimously passed a resolution urging the state to amend the new law.

Some proposed amendments are already pending in Albany.

South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I- Sag Harbor) has cosponsored a bill that would expand judges’ discretion to set bail for more criminal charges.

Palumbo announced in November that he would be cosponsoring legislation when the legislature reconvened in January that would fully repeal the new bail reform rules.

The criminal justice reforms were enacted in March by the Democratic-controlled legislature. They had no support from the Republican conference in either chamber.

“We voted against every one of these fake criminal justice reforms,” State Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan said at a New Year’s Eve press conference outside the county jail in Riverside. “The public is going to be less safe as a result of the enactment of these laws by one-party rule,” he 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.