Bail-Reform, Speedy Trial Tackled in 2020 NY Budget

ALBANY (CN) – Adopting a number of criminal-justice reforms with the 2020 budget, New York paved the way this weekend for the state to nix cash bail in the vast majority of cases.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said the vote is only one step in the fight and that additional bail negotiations will continue at least until the legislative session wraps in June.

The new budget slashes the cash-bail requirement for about 90 percent of cases, excluding certain violent felonies. Poor black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by the cash bail system, while wealthier people accused of crimes can afford to await trial in home confinement or under other restrictions.

New York has been poised to end cash bail for months amid calls from activists that people charged with crimes shouldn’t spend time in jail before they’re proven guilty simply because they can’t afford bail. In New York, that often means people end up at Rikers Island, a jail continually under fire for human rights violations and abuse by guards.

Other states to strike cash bail legislation include New Jersey, California, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Alaska.

According to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has more people locked up awaiting trial — over half a million — than other countries have incarcerated altogether.

Cash bail is one of several criminal justice issues tackled in the new budget.

Another says that, starting in January 2020, prosecutors will have to turn over their evidence to the defense 15 days after an indictment rather than waiting until the last minute before trial, as they were able to do under discovery laws that had been in place for decades.

Legislators also reformed the state’s speedy-trial provisions by enacting a law to prevent prosecutors from unnecessarily delaying proceedings. It will allow judges to make a call about whether they think prosecutors are actually ready to bring a case to trial when they say they are.

The budget likewise reduces maximum misdemeanor sentences and requires more reporting by law enforcement agencies on the use of force, as well as other related reform items.

“Too often for our communities of color and for those living in poverty, the justice system is unjust,” Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement.

“We owe it to these communities to defend their constitutional right to a speedy trial.” 

This year marks the first time in nearly a decade that both houses of New York’s Legislature and the governorship are controlled by Democrats. 

“The Assembly majority is committed to making sure every New Yorker is treated fairly by our criminal justice system,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement today. “This budget … will ensure that every New Yorker is treated with dignity and respect. But we know our work is not done. We will continue fighting for reforms that will make a difference in people’s lives.”

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