WNYC: Whither Bail Reform? In Albany, it's Still in Limbo

Despite support for a bill to end cash bail from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and fellow Democrats, the issue appears to be going nowhere until November — when Democrats hope to take back the Senate. They currently control the assembly.

Supporters had high hopes in January when Cuomo announced a package of criminal justice reforms that included doing away with cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Bail is widely seen by many critics as a tool that disproportionately hurts poor defendants (especially blacks and Latinos) who can't afford to put down money to ensure they come back to their next court appearances, unlike wealthier people charged with the same crimes. It's also a logistical hurdle for friends and relatives trying to pay the bail — with some having to find a floating jail in the East River.

But Republican senate leaders said bail reform wasn't a fiscal issue, and didn't belong in the budget that was due in April.

Proponents were still hoping they could get a vote by the end of the session in June. But the issue appears to have fizzled, especially as Democrats and Republicans are at a standstill with 31 reliable votes for each party in the Senate.

"Bail reform is going to be extremely difficult to achieve as long as the Republicans are in control of the Senate," said Queens Democrat Michael Gianaris, who sponsored a Senate bill to end cash bail and let most offenders walk free or stay out of jail with supervision. He'd also allow judges to send defendants accused of violent crimes to jail. "They don't understand the issue and are fundamentally opposed to bringing more fairness to our criminal justice system," he said, of Republicans.

But a spokesman for Republican Senate leader John Flanagan said Gianaris should speak for himself. "We are currently reviewing hundreds of bills to determine which ones have the support necessary to move to the floor for a vote," said Scott Reif.

Nonetheless, Albany watchers believe Democrats are waiting to see if they'll win control of the Senate in November. Tina Luongo, attorney in charge of the criminal division of the Legal Aid Society, said proponents will still lobby lawmakers this month. But she predicted those who are stuck in jail cells because they can't afford to pay bail will lose out in the meantime.

"Lives are getting destroyed," she said. "Lives are getting off-roaded, people are losing jobs or away from their family."

She also questioned whether Cuomo has been vocal enough on bail reform and the need for speedy trials since announcing his legislative agenda in January. Back then, he cited the tragic suicide of Kalief Browder, who killed himself after spending years on Rikers Island because he couldn't afford to post bail. Luongo said the governor's "force to get it done waned" in the months that followed.

But Cuomo spokesman Tyrone Stevens maintained criminal justice reform "is the top priority for our administration and we will continue to fight."

He also blamed the Republican-led senate. "They've consistently thrown obstacles in the way for progress."