Criminal justice debate shifts to sentencing law changes

Advocates who have called for changes to New York’s criminal justice system are starting a new effort to overhaul how people are sentenced to prison. 

They are seeking the approval of a trio of bills that, broadly, are meant to eliminate many mandatory minimum sentences, allow for resentencing in some instances and allow for earned time in prison to result in early release. 

“The complete suite of bills, all three together, just completely change the way sentencing has operated in New York for the last half century,” said Jared Trujillo, the senior policy counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union. 

Sentencing law changes would be the latest package of changes to go through the state Capitol after efforts to overhaul the juvenile justice system were approved, as well as limits to the use of solitary confinement and evidence discovery.

“For individuals, it would fundamentally change what their lives look like,” Trujillo said. “For individuals, this is a fundamental sea change and it would change their lives. How radical is this? It’s not really radical at all.”

Advocates are also making the push in an Albany that, on paper, is fundamentally no different after Election Day. Democrats are retaining large majorities in the state Senate and Assembly; all statewide Democrats were re-elected. 

But the proposals are also being made after a campaign season in which Republicans blasted Democrats over criminal justice law changes like ending cash bail for many criminal charges in addition to a range of provisions approved in recent years that were meant to create a fairer criminal justice system. 

Changing sentencing laws would come more than a decade after the repeal of the Rockefeller-era drug laws in New York, which at the time were hailed as a tool of combatting the drug scourge, but have since been seen as ineffective. 

“New York really tops the national charts in long sentences and sentences over 10 years, and that kind of excessive sentencing is what these bills seek to address,” said Katie Schaffer of the Center for Community Alternatives. 

Schaffer is also confident Democrats who control Albany will still be willing to listen. 

“It’s time to update these laws. It’s time to make New York sentencing code fairer and more just,” Schaffer said. 

Democratic Assemblyman Phil Steck says the message from Republicans that laws like ending cash bail for many criminal charges stuck in voters’ minds. 

“There was a perception among the public that so-called cashless bail applied to violent crimes,” he said. “That’s nonsense.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was criticized by her Republican challenger Lee Zeldin during the campaign over the bail laws, approved changes earlier in the year that expanded when bail should be required. Steck is also willing to make changes to New York’s bail laws, expanding them to include illegal gun possession and more instances of domestic violence. 

“Because of the tremendous potential for deadly violence there, that should also be within the bail,” he said. 

Hochul leading up to the election sought to tout her efforts to curtail crime. Next year, she’s expected to further expand the ranks of the State Police and continue a crackdown on illegal guns. 

“I’m not letting the political theater out there affect what we’ve done,” she said in October. “This is not a new issue for me and I think that’s well established.”

Pressure to oppose the changes is also expected to continue from New York City Mayor Eric Adams and locally elected prosecutors in both parties. Albany County District Attorney David Soares has urged lawmakers to convene and make changes to the laws. 

On Thursday, the organization that represents district attorneys in New York called for funding to address the discovery law changes, as well as gun violence. 

“There exists a perception of fear of crime among New York’s residents, businesses and visitors,” said Tony Jordan, the Washington County district attorney. “A few short years ago, public safety was not a major concern for most New Yorkers. Unfortunately, rising rates of crime in recent years have created an overwhelming concern about public safety. Meaningful efforts to prevent crime, build public trust, and create a modern, efficient, and successful criminal justice system require investment by the state, as well as a continuing examination of our current laws.”

Steck, who represents a largely suburban district around the Capital Region, believes elected officials in his party needed to do a better job of explaining what the bail law and other criminal justice changes did, and why the changes were made.

“I think the Democrats really fell down in explaining what the bail reform was really about,” he said. 

https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nys/central-ny/ny-state-of-politics/2022/11/17/criminal-justice-debate-shifts-to-sentencing-law-changes