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Queens Chronicle

Bail reform could be tweaked: pols

Barnwell bill would give discretion to judges in some criminal cases

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Posted: Thursday, January 9, 2020 10:30 am | Updated: 11:45 am, Thu Jan 16, 2020.

Less than a week after hotly contested bail reform laws took effect on Jan. 1, Gov. Cuomo and the Democratic leadership in the Legislature are talking about making adjustments, including some that would give judges discretion when dealing with a mentally ill or possibly dangerous suspect.

A handful of Queens legislators this week told the Chronicle it is possible to tweak the law while eliminating or at least seriously curtailing the use of cash bail, which each one said discriminates against low-income defendants without drastically increasing safety.

Assemblyman Brian Barnwell (D-Maspeth) on Tuesday told the Chronicle he planned to introduce a bill to do both when the session opened on Wednesday, Jan. 8.

His bill would keep the existing restrictions on bail, but allow a judge to assess the defendant’s risk of flight, criminal record, record of making ordered court appearances, and whether the person should be considered a threat to harm himself or others.

“If person A and person B commit the same crime, and person A can make $10,000 bail and person B can’t, person A is out of jail — does that make person A any less dangerous on the street?” he asked.

While many police agencies and prosecutors have assailed the new laws, Barnwell said his bill would give New York State judges the same discretion as those in other states that have eliminated or restricted bail.

State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) agreed that previous bail laws overwhelmingly harmed low-income defendants. But he also said as with any law, he is open to reviewing it and improving it where possible. The senator also said that people who want to criticize their legislators for their votes last year need to remember that bail reform and numerous other measures were not voted on individually, but folded into the budget that passed in April.

“I may not like aspects of bail reform, but I like funding for education in my district, he said. “I like funding for seniors. I like not shutting the government down so state workers can get paid — and I don’t like fear-mongering.”

He said, for example, that the bail reforms passed last year added protections that had not existed.

“The reforms have a provision for monitoring a person who has been released — it’s in the law,” Addabbo said. “Under the old system when a person was bailed out, he was out on the streets.”

Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal (D-Flushing) was one of two members of the Queens delegation who voted against the budget back in April, along with Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows).

He would like to see some things re-examined. But Rosenthal also believes bail changes were necessary as a matter of fairness.

“You have two people charged with the same crime; it’s unfair that one person is locked up while the other is out on the street,” Rosenthal said. “But you must have [a judge’s] assessment.”

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz (D-Corona), however, told the Chronicle in an email on Tuesday that any such moves are premature.

“Prior to the criminal justice reforms being voted on and passed, both the Senate and Assembly did their due diligence and met with judges, lawyers, and advocacy groups about the implications and implementations of the new laws,” Cruz said.

“Given that these laws have been in effect for less than a week, I think it is prudent for legislators, judges, and activists on both sides to allow time for evaluation and feedback,” she added. “Our cash bail system criminalized poverty, devastated communities of color, and incarcerated the masses for decades. What is not helpful is the campaign of fear-mongering and misinformation that has resulted in the mere six days since this law took effect.”

The offices of state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria), the deputy majority leader, and Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-Jamaica) did not respond to requests for comment.

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