Bail law controversy escalates: Legislators visit Rikers Island, denounce governor’s proposed changes

Approval of the FY 2024 budget remains stalled by the incendiary debate over reforms to the administration of criminal justice. Governor pulls out new cards to push her proposal.

The complicated debate originated from Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposal to include in the FY 2024 budget technical modifications to New York’s Bail Law Reform led a group of legislators to visit the Rikers Island Jail on Thursday to check on site the conditions of the prison population.

This inspection of New York’s largest jail was an opportunity for eight assembly members, who are radically opposed to changing “one letter” of the controversial criminal justice reform, to repudiate once again the modifications proposed by the governor. An issue that keeps the approval of the state budget at a standstill.

We will have blood on our hands if we allow these changes to be implemented in our New York State budget,” said Queens Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani.

After the surprise visit, the group of Assemblymen and Senators said that it was “difficult to conclude” whether conditions at the prison, where three dozen people have died in the past two years, have improved in recent months.

But they made it clear that if any reform changes move forward, they do not doubt that the number of New Yorkers on bail will increase substantially.

Furthermore, they were certain that the changes proposed by Hochul would aggravate the “hellish conditions” in which detainees and prison staff live.

“They showed us a pretty face of new recreation rooms with video games. But even there, incarcerated people say that when they return to their residences, there are garbage, mice, and deplorable conditions,” Mandani stressed to local media.

Proponents of bail law reform claim that it can take years of incarceration before a jury decides whether a defendant is guilty or innocent.

According to a recent report, a detainee spends an average of 115 days inside Rikers Island, a number that is nearly twice as long as eight years ago and is four times the national average.

In this regard, Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes questioned that Governor Hochul, instead of promoting laws that would create health insurance coverage for all, is trying to reinforce the idea of mass incarceration.

“We just heard from hundreds of people behind bars simply because they are poor. There are no programs for them. They are traumatizing a population who have not even been found guilty. What we have just seen and heard is terrible. It is impossible to think about changes in the bail law,” said the Peruvian legislator, who represents Sunset Park in Brooklyn.

“It’s still terrible, but there are changes.”

But at the heart of this controversy, in the first major report on Rikers Island since last fall, the federal team overseeing the prison complex concludes that while conditions remain “terrible,” improvements have slowly begun to take root.

“Prison conditions of confinement can be described as being in a state of flux. They are gradually moving from profound dysfunction toward the beginnings of improved management,” the monitor, Steve J. Martin, said in a statement.

Among the more troubling revelations detailed in the monitor’s report is the lack of disciplinary measures for correctional officers accused of misconduct. This metric has begun to trend “in the wrong direction in recent months.”

The lack of discipline comes as use-of-force incidents continue to be widespread, the monitor reinforced.

On the same topic:

Hochul draws new cards.

The fight over the bond change has delayed the passage of the New York state fiscal budget due April 1. It is now not expected to pass until at least next week.

At this point, neither the Democratic majority in the State Assembly nor the governor shows any signs of giving in.

The plan to give judges more leeway to set bail is one of the key issues stalling the budget negotiations.

In fact, in the last hours, the governor, defending her proposal tooth and nail, is bringing out new cards showing high-profile criminal cases.

For example, she said a New York City man accused of strangling his 15-year-old stepson to death was arrested on state parole violations Thursday, a day after a Bronx judge released him without bail.

Tyresse Minter, 28, was arrested after the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision issued a warrant for his arrest, according to the Mandarin.

Hochul announced Minter’s arrest through an official statement issued by her office.

“My top priority is public safety. Earlier today, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision issued a warrant for the arrest of Tyresse Minter, and he is now in custody.”

Minter, who now faces murder and criminally negligent manslaughter charges, allegedly strangled his stepson.

In the background

Finance law reform eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies as of January 2020.

In short, it made judges consider a person’s ability to pay in cases where bail is set. The goal was to reduce pretrial incarceration disproportionately affecting black and Latino communities.

But how specifically does the governor want to change bail laws this year?

For bail-eligible cases, Hochul proposed in her budget plan to eliminate a law that requires judges, at the time of arraignment, to impose the “least restrictive” means to ensure that the defendant returns to court.

The governor believes that her plan will clear up confusion in this reform, particularly by eliminating a clause that requires judges to impose the “least restrictive” release conditions to ensure that a defendant appears in court. He believes this has been interpreted differently by judges across the state.

All indications are that the Democratic majority in the State Assembly is unwilling to budge an inch on the governor’s intent.