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GOP lawmakers intensify pushback against bail reform laws

WXXI's Karen DeWitt interviews Senate GOP Minority Leader John Flanagan.
WXXI's Karen DeWitt interviews Senate GOP Minority Leader John Flanagan.

WXXI's Karen DeWitt reports that Republican lawmakers plan to hold roundtables on the fallout from the state's bail reform laws.


WXXI's Karen DeWitt interviews Senate GOP Minority Leader John Flanagan.
Credit Dan Clark New York Now
WXXI's Karen DeWitt interviews Senate GOP Minority Leader John Flanagan.

Republican state lawmakers will be holding roundtable forums around the state to discuss the fallout from the state's newly enacted criminal justice reforms that ended most forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes.The changes to the bail system have led to a backlash among police and prosecutors, who cite examples of defendants with multiple criminal convictions being freed on their own recognizance.

Republican state lawmakers have highlighted the issue, saying it's an example of overreach by the all-Democratic state Legislature.

Senate GOP Minority Leader John Flanagan, in an interview with public radio and television, said the new laws are "bad public policy" and have been very poorly implemented. He said they should be repealed, or there should be a moratorium.

"This is the No. 1 issue, it's not even close," Flanagan said. "This is what people are talking about."

Republican senators will hold the roundtable discussions in the coming weeks in Buffalo, Long Island and Syracuse, which are also areas where they hope to regain or hold on to GOP seats.

Flanagan said he disagrees with the premise that the crimes that no longer require bail are nonviolent. He said those crimes include second-degree manslaughter, a sexual act involving a child and vehicular assault.

He gives the example of a Bellport, Long Island, man with a history of drunken driving who was again charged with DWI after a Jan. 12 crash that killed a 27-year-old man.

The man had been arrested on Jan. 1 after being accused of interfering with an ignition interlock device, but he wasn't required to post bail."Someone is dead as a result of the change in this law," said Flanagan.

Reporting by Newsday later determined that the judge and prosecutor erred in the case, and that the new bail reform laws did not require the release of the man.Supporters of bail reform say wealthy people accused of crimes, even violent crimes, have always been able to pay their bail and remain free until their trial. They cite the example of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of rape, who was free after meeting bail until his trial began.

Flanagan said he agrees that there should not be two different standards for the rich and the poor and that the law should be applied equally.

Even some Democrats are having second thoughts.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Tish James have said some tweaks need to be made to the law.

Assembly Democrats say they are not ready, though, to make any changes until the law has been given some time to work.

Senate Democrats are split on the issue.

Sen. Monica Martinez from Long Island said she won't vote for the state budget unless it includes changes to the bail reform laws. She's introduced a bill that would give judges more discretion on whether to hold a defendant before trial.

The Senate Democrats held a private meeting recently with police chiefs, including Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan, the president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police.

Phelan said the senators asked for the meeting, and they listened to the chiefs.

"They were very receptive to hearing our concerns," Phelan told WXXI News in an interview.

He said the meeting lasted around 90 minutes: "It was a good conversation."

Phelan said police chiefs also want judges to be given more discretion. He also said he has concerns over related changes to the state's discovery laws that now require prosecutors to turn over to defendants all of the evidence collected against them within 15 days.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is a supporter of the criminal justice reforms, said Democrats also talked to law enforcement last spring when they approved the changes as part of the budget. And she said there was a good reason to make those changes in the first place.

"The way the system had been before we did anything was extremely unfair," said Stewart-Cousins. "It criminalized poverty."

Stewart-Cousins, who has said some opponents of bail reform are engaging in "fearmongering," said she just wants to "cut through the noise" and make sure the law is accomplishing what it was supposed to achieve.

"We want to get it right," she said. 

Copyright 2020 WXXI News