Mar. 28, 2023 By Ethan Stark-Miller
As the debate around whether to make even more changes to New York’s reformed bail laws heats up in the final days of state budget negotiations, a group of over 100 law professors penned a letter to Governor Kathy Hochul and state legislative leaders urging them to leave the statutes as they are.
In the missive, the law professors, who hail from law schools across the state including Columbia University and CUNY, blasted Hochul’s push to excise from state law the “least restrictive standard” — which compels judges to use the least onerous means for bringing defendants back to court.
“We are law professors from across New York state, writing to add our collective voice to the demands for a safer and more just New York,” they wrote in the letter. “That commitment compels a resolute rejection of Governor Hochul’s proposal to eliminate from New York law the statutorily-defined purpose of bail — ensuring an accused person’s return to court — and the legal standard for imposing it.”
“As scholars who teach and study the law, we are familiar with its capacity for reproducing violence and entrenching systemic inequities,” they continued. “It is that familiarity that informs our staunch opposition to Governor Hochul’s plan, which would eviscerate New York’s long standing approach to pretrial detention and send more Black, brown and low-income New Yorkers to jail.”
Hochul wants to enact the changes in the state budget for the coming fiscal year, which must be passed by the week’s end — April 1 — in order to be considered on-time. She has, however, floated the idea of holding up the spending plan until her desired bail rollbacks are included — a tactic she successfully employed last year, which made the budget nine days late.
The governor says her plan would clear up confusion among judges about which violent crimes are bail eligible.
The legal eagles behind the letter appear to already have support from state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both of whom refused to make any bail law changes in their own budget plans. According to a Monday Siena College poll, however, an overwhelming majority of New York registered voters would like to see the governor’s plan come to fruition.
The bail laws Hochul seeks to alter were passed by the state legislature and signed by disgraced ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2019 to eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. They aimed to spare those accused, but not yet convicted, of a crime from languishing in often dangerous jails while awaiting their court date.
In the letter, the law professors argue Hochul’s proposed tweaks to the bail laws would further exacerbate already wide racial disparities among New York City’s jail population — the majority of which is Black and brown — and create more confusion among judges; while making it clear that past tweaks to the 2019 laws already give judges ample discretion when it comes to serious offenses.
“Removing the legal standard and purpose would not clarify the law as the Governor contends,” they wrote. “Instead, it would sow confusion and lead to even greater unequal outcomes for New Yorkers. There would be more people locked up in our deadly jails, presumed innocent, awaiting trial.”
“Removing the legal standard and purpose would also strip from the courts the ability to review bail decisions for abuses of discretion by evaluating whether the factors were considered in line with a legal standard,” they added.
When reached for comment, the governor’s office declined to weigh-in specifically on the content of the letter, instead pointing amNewYork Metro to comments she made last week about her rationale for the change she wants.
The group pointedly urged state lawmakers to stand by their rejection of the governor’s plan and make sure it isn’t part of the final budget.
“The proposal must be rejected in whole,” they wrote. “Only by refusing to cede this high and moral ground can we return to legislating real opportunities to make our communities feel safe and thrive.”