New York Defense Groups Denounce Governor Cuomo’s Reversal of Bail Reform

By Shellsea Lomeli

NEW YORK – A number of New York defense groups released a statement together, advocating against the return of the state’s cash bail system – a threat posed by the state government’s forthcoming budget.

In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic which has resulted in over 2,000 deaths in the state of New York alone, Gov. Cuomo and the State Senate have introduced an emergency budget that would reverse the bail reforms that New Yorkers voted for last year. The “Bail Elimination Act of 2019,” eliminated cash bail for a variety of charges including most misdemeanors and some felonies.

According to the New York State Senate, the legislation was enacted with the purpose of ending monetary bail use and lowering the number of “unnecessary pretrial incarceration and improve equality and fairness in the criminal justice system.” The “Bail Elimination Act of 2019” or S2101A derives from two previous versions of senate bills, beginning from the 2015-2016 legislative session.

On April 1, 2020, in a joint response to bail reform rollbacks, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, The Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defender Service, and New York County Defender Services stated that Gov. Cuomo’s emergency budget would increase pretrial jailing – an initiative that they are completely against.

New York City’s public defenders claimed that the “quick and secret” action would not only take away the accomplishments of the past year but it would “ultimately set New York decades back.” Their statement is used to urge the state legislators to “stand strong against bail reform rollbacks”, reminding these legislators that they had recognized such reforms just a year ago.

The five public defense groups stated that “those most at risk of unjust imprisonment should these measures pass”, are the underserved communities of New York that they represent as attorneys.

In relation to the current COVID-19 crisis, the controversy of the budget raised the concern of the virus infection traveling through the jail system.

Reversing bail reforms and imprisoning more people in already overcrowded jails is a dismissal of New Yorker’s rights, said the state’s public defenders. The statement used Rikers Island, the main jail complex of New York City, as an example of this crisis.

“The rate of COVID-19 infection on Rikers Island is currently eight times that of the rest of the city”, the public defenders wrote. Their statement argued that this continuation of overcrowding is not only a public health threat within itself, but it also poses a threat to “the wellbeing of the state at large”.

“What happens within our jails impacts the rest of the state,” the public defense groups stated as they continued to urge their legislators to fight alongside them to save the New York bail reform from a rollback.

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