The move marks an early attempt to gain the high ground after Republicans last year seized on the state’s bail laws as evidence Democrats are weak on crime, fueling embarrassing losses for House Democrats in New York. The governor’s new strategy could shape next year’s House races, and maybe even control of Congress. But it could also prove a tough and complicated sell to voters.
The new law will give judges greater authority to decide whether an individual can be held on bail. The tweaks mark, to the dismay of liberals, a third round of rollbacks of progressive bail laws Democrats passed in 2019.
Hochul’s team realized too late in the midterm cycle that public safety and the economy — not abortion rights — were animating New York voters. The result was the closest governor’s race since 1994, and Democrats were swept out of all four House seats on Long Island, as well as battleground races in the Hudson Valley.
The blame landed squarely on New York Democrats and especially Hochul, a messaging mishap that even former Speaker Nancy Pelosi said state leaders should have recognized earlier.
Former GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin’s gubernatorial campaign focused on rising crime rates in big New York cities, and he consistently blamed the bail laws for permitting dangerous individuals to walk free.
Democrats attempted to argue that there is little evidence linking crime spikes to New York’s bail laws and pointed to larger, national crime trends that were influenced by the pandemic. But Zeldin and GOP House candidates successfully used the issue to gain ground in the critical New York City suburbs.
Hochul held up the state budget for nine days last year to get a handful of bail changes. But then she didn’t effectively promote the tougher laws during the campaign.
She is trying not to make the same mistake twice.
So Hochul’s budget, the first of her first full term, revolved around addressing those critiques; she delayed budget negotiations for weeks and sacrificed a deal on her other major initiatives, like a broad housing plan she wanted, in order to push reluctant Democrats to once again open talks on bail. She was backed up by Adams.
“I say over and over again that there are many rivers that feed the sea of violence, and we have to dam each river, and we damned one during this process,” Adams said Wednesday on WABC Radio.
The ultimate deal still left many unhappy. It did not go as far as Republicans, some moderates and even Adams wanted. Hochul has resisted backing a “dangerousness” standard for even greater judicial discretion that has been used by other states that have successfully overhauled bail laws.
“The governor is going to claim a win for public safety even though the law expressly prohibits judges from taking a defendant’s dangerousness into account during the pretrial process,” Albany-area Republican Sen. Jake Ashby said in a statement during budget votes last week. “If she tries to spin that as judicial discretion, she will be embracing a level of shamelessness previously reserved only for her predecessor.”
Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, too, brushed off the changes as inconsequential in the state’s fight against crime during his podcast Thursday. Cuomo, a Democrat who cruised to three terms before resigning in 2021 over sexual harassment allegations, said he personally would have sought a broader criminal justice deal.
“I don’t think anyone won anything. The governor loses,” Cuomo said. “The answer was not bail reform.”
The changes, for example, did not include adjustments to discovery laws — measures also passed in 2019 outlining how and when prosecutors hand over case material — despite pushes from progressive prosecutors who say those laws also need to be fixed to prevent cases from being tossed on technical grounds.
Republicans won’t be letting up on attacking Democrats on crime, state GOP chair Ed Cox said. Democrats “are not going to be able to hide on this issue” in 2024 when all 26 House seats will be on the ballot, he said.
“Kathy Hochul continues to have her head in the sand on crime,” he said in a statement. “The changes made in her budget are just window dressing.”
The amendments go too far for the Legislature’s progressive caucuses, which say such adjustment could lead to more poor, mostly minority suspects being held on bail — the reason the laws were changed in the first place.
Hochul struggled to build progressive enthusiasm for her candidacy last year, and the new changes may not help her do so in the future.
“The governor’s effort to decimate bail wasn’t driven by facts. It was driven by fear mongering, headlines, political expediency and it was reacting to a far-right strategy to weaponize racism,” Assemblymember Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) said during the budget debate.
They is also a policy gamble. Researchers have said Hochul’s measures are not the strongest way to address specific issues of recidivism and the broader issue of public safety.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law was “disappointed by the Legislature’s continued focus on revising bail reform to the exclusion of other policies that can make our communities safer,” senior counsel Ames Grawert said in a statement.
In response, Hochul said the budget also includes more money for gun violence prevention, mental health support and pay bumps for public defenders.
Now she’ll have to better sell her plan to skeptical voters.
Democrats will be “able to say they took significant steps toward improving the safety of New Yorkers, while not going back on reforms that were necessary,” Hochul told reporters.
“And we have to show that we struck the right balance.”