Democrats’ fight over bail reform might be a fight for the party’s direction

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ALBANY, N.Y. — Three years after New York bail reform changes were hailed as a national victory to address unfair detainment, the state law and its effects are now a political grenade being lobbed from both the right and left amid surging crime.

The debate has become a growing symbol of rifts among progressive and moderate Democrats that is playing out in statehouses across the U.S.

Fixing New York’s bail requirements was hailed as a national victory after Democrats regained dual majorities in the state Senate in 2019. A series of reforms, which included banning cash bail for all but the most violent felonies, were signed into law as a symbol of what the party could do united in power for the first time in years.

Flash forward three years later: The fierce fight over how to address a crime wave has infiltrated the debate in all New York statewide races this year, including for governor, and for critical House seats that could help determine the control of Congress in November.

“I believe this is a nationally coordinated campaign, quite honestly, about linking crime to progressives, and linking crime to people in power,” said state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), whose conference is resisting pressure to revise the bail laws.

“I don't subscribe to that, but I understand that is politics.”

In New Jersey, liberal Democrats and more moderate ones battled last year over abortion rights, leading Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy to pare back some of the measures that passed in January. And in California, liberal Democrats are clamoring to end offshore oil drilling while moderate Democrats have echoed industry calls to intensify fossil fuel production given overseas volatility.

In New York, calls for rollbacks to bail reform are being championed by newly elected New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a moderate who beat progressive candidates at the polls last year. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a moderate herself, is trying to satisfy Adams and his supporters, but also compromise with the Democratic-controlled, more left-leaning Legislature in the coming days of budget negotiations for the fiscal year that starts April 1.

There’s potential peril in how leaders in Albany proceed: Several local candidates, particularly on Long Island, lost elections last year to Republicans, who tied bail reform to spikes in crime and won election in the battleground, suburban areas.

“We need to look at crime holistically because what’s driving violent crime is not bail reform. Unfortunately, that’s a narrative, but that’s not what the facts are,” warned state Sen. Peter Harckham, a Westchester County Democrat in a moderate district.

Crime spike connection?

No issue has dominated New York politics in recent months more than crime and what to do about it. No data, so far, suggests that bail reform has been responsible for higher rates of violent crime New Yorkers are seeing on the news, on the streets and in the subways, according to several recent analyses.

But that hasn’t stopped political candidates from saying so on the airwaves, in mailers and at news conferences, especially as voters across the political spectrum signal that crime will be their top concern heading to the ballot box.

It’s political gold for Republicans, who are hoping to make gains in the suburbs this fall.

Those who support the bail law “after two NYPD officers were murdered and innocent New Yorkers were being pushed in front of subways, attacked on the street with hatchets and followed into their homes and stabbed to death” will “have blood on their hands,” state GOP Chair Nick Langworthy said.

Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is challenging Hochul from the right in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, has accused Hochul of being ill prepared and uncommunicative about how she will address crime. Changes to the bail reform law — particularly changes to allow judges more discretion about when to require cash bail for “dangerous” individuals— are just “common sense,” he said Thursday.

“We have a crime crisis, and the governor has treated it like an afterthought,” he said.

The drumbeat of criticism from moderate Democrats and Republicans has left centrists like Hochul — who initially attempted to avoid the debate by emphasizing other public safety proposals — toeing a difficult line.

She’s at odds with the left wing of the party if she suggests adding more exceptions to the laws, but could face backlash by moderates and independents on Election Day if she doesn’t, officials suggested.

Republican New York City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli, who supports more extensive rollbacks to bail reform than what Hochul laid out, called the proposal a lose-lose.

“It gives her a political headache without actually addressing the root of the problem,” he said. “It makes no one happy and gives her opponents from every angle a new round of criticism. She should literally fire whoever told her this is a good idea.”

What's on the table?

Hochul has proposed a series of changes to bail and other criminal justice laws, including allowing judges to set bail for repeat offenders and in all felony cases involving illegal guns.

In an op-ed in which she outlined the plan — after days of refusing to discuss it in public — she also argued that bail reform was not responsible for the recent spike in crime and conceded her proposal would not immediately reverse the rise in violence.

The proposal, and its timing just days before the due date for the state budget where she’d like it included, sparked immediate backlash on the left, while failing to quell criticism from the right.

And it appears unlikely much of her plan will make it in the final state budget deal. Liberal Democrats fear a watered-down, new law would lead more poor people to be kept in jail and discriminate against minorities, as had been the case for decades.

“This governor literally has said that these bail reforms have nothing to do with the rise of crime, has literally said they won’t lower crime, but has literally said we’re going to do it anyway,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is running against Hochul in the Democratic primary, and headlined a rally against her plans outside the governor’s office in Manhattan on Thursday.

The criminal justice reform movement embodied by the massive protests that swept New York and the country after the 2020 murder of George Floyd is butting up against concerns against rising crime.

Many Democrats who rushed to promise more criminal justice reform during the wave of protests — with some embracing the call to “defund the police” — are less than two years later in the camp seeking to roll back previous reforms.

“Democrats are terrible about talking about public safety,” Williams said in an interview. “They default to Republican-lite talking points because the fear mongering gets so [bad], they get so overwhelmed with it they don’t know what to do.”

Backlash from the left and right

Jared Trujillo, policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the backlash was predictable.

One of the primary goals of the reforms was to ensure that poor communities and people of color would not be disproportionately penalized by their inability to pay bail, especially for low-level crimes.

Proponents regularly pointed to the case of Bronx teenager Kalief Browder who spent three years on Rikers Island because his family could not raise $3,000, only to have a robbery charge dropped for lack of evidence. Browder later died by suicide.

“These bills are some of the most significant civil rights reforms in New York’s history,” Trujillo said. “After every civil rights victory in this country, there has been pushback to it. After Reconstruction, we got Jim Crow. After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we got the Rockefeller drug era and we got mass incarceration.

”The people that capitulated during all those movements, they are not heroes. It got them no electoral wins. It did not help them,” he said.

At first it seemed like Hochul, who is running for reelection less than a year after she took office in the wake of Andrew Cuomo’s resignation in August, would avoid the debate.

She pointed to her seriousness about crime with a series of public safety proposals that include addressing illegal gun trafficking and funding community-based gun violence prevention programs.

She and Adams last month jointly announced they would ramp up enforcement in subway stations to get people experiencing homelessness out of the subways and into housing or treatment. Just one day earlier they’d both pled for party unity at the state Democratic convention in Manhattan.

But Adams, a former NYPD captain who centered his campaign on a pledge to bring down gun violence, is one of several of her fellow moderates who say that new public safety plans should also include changing the bail laws to give judges discretion to hold people in jail before trial if they are deemed dangerous.

Hochul’s proposal stops short of that, but Adams has backed the measures she outlined.

“I complain about every dangerous person that’s released. Every one. We don’t need dangerous people on our streets,” Adams told reporters at City Hall this week. “It’s contributing to the sea of violence that we are experiencing.”

In February voters seemed to be on the same page, according to Siena College Research Institute polling.

By a 65-27 percent margin, they said "the so-called bail reform law should be amended to give judges more discretion to keep dangerous criminals off the streets."

The state budget is often where policies as controversial as bail reform are accomplished using political pressure from key spending elements, a point brought up by Cuomo, who also waded into the debate from a comeback tour speaking event on St. Patrick’s Day.

“I will wager anyone in the room if they don’t pass a law changing bail reform in the budget they won’t pass any meaningful reform by the end of the session in June,” he told a group of Hispanic clergy and former politicians.

But legislative leaders have maintained a cool reception to Hochul’s suggested changes to bail laws, though they acknowledge it could affect some of the more vulnerable members in their conferences at the polls this year.

“Nobody in our conference is wanting to go backwards,” Stewart-Cousins said.

“I will continue and my conference will continue to do what we think is right for the people of New York state,” she said. “And I believe that if we continue to do that, we will transcend politics, especially politics of lies, and untruth.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, who hails from the same borough as Browder, said he no longer believes the debate is centered around the policy itself.

“I know our opponents are going to say: They are being soft on crime; they don’t care about victims. That’s all bullshit,” Heastie said. “We care about having safe communities, and I hate when people try to politicize these things.”