ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Judges in New York will have more discretion to jail people awaiting trial for alleged crimes, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Thursday night, a policy change fiercely resisted by some of her fellow Democrats.
The governor held a state Capitol news conference to announce that a “conceptual agreement” had been reached on a $229 billion budget with the state Legislature, a deal that still needs to be approved by lawmakers. The budget includes policy proposals ranging from a minimum wage hike to allowing more charter schools in New York City.
But negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders ran well past an April 1 deadline, in large part because Hochul insisted on changes to the state’s bail laws.
The issue has been a flashpoint between liberal Democrats, who say requiring people to pay cash to get out of jail rigs the system against poor people, and elected officials who cast it as a public safety issue.
New York approved sweeping changes in 2019 aimed at keeping defendants who can’t afford bail from being disproportionately jailed. But those changes have been tweaked twice before amid criticism that judges were being deprived of a tool they could use to hold people likely to commit new crimes.
The new agreement would remove a requirement that judges choose the “least restrictive” means to ensure defendants return to court. Judges have complained the standard “tied their hands,” Hochul said.
“It gives judges discretion they need to hold violent criminals accountable, while still upholding our commitment to a justice system that is fair and accessible to all and also ensuring that poverty is never treated as a crime,” she said.
State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie confirmed the conceptual agreement in a statement, saying it addresses many priorities advocated by Democrats. He added that some issues were still under discussion.
Hochul’s latest push for bail changes came after her closer-than-expected election victory last November in the Democrat-dominated state. Republicans attacked their opponents as soft on crime, making particularly strong gains in New York City suburbs.
Some lawmakers said Hochul’s proposed changes would undercut bail reforms approved in 2019 and result in more New Yorkers in pretrial detention — especially people with low incomes and people of color.
Assembly member Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat, accused Hochul of the “wholesale dismantling of bail reform.”
Bail has become a point of contention between GOP and Democratic lawmakers in other states as well. Republican lawmakers in at least 14 states, including Georgia and Wisconsin, have pushed bills that would in part make it harder for defendants to get out of jail before trial.
Hochul announced the agreement after lawmakers went back to their districts for the rest of the week but said she and legislative leaders are on a path to conclude the budget process.
“A few hours ago we agreed that we’re at a point where the major decisions have been made,” she said.
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