Public Safety Is Job Number One

A legislative column by Assemblyman Robert Smullen (R,C,Ref-Meco)

In his State of the State address, Governor Cuomo loudly proclaimed that government's first responsibility is to protect the people. I wholeheartedly agree, and that is why we must immediately repeal and fix the misguided bail reform law that was buried in last year’s budget, rushed through the Legislature in the middle of the night, and signed into law by the Governor.

Under the new law, judicial discretion, which has long been a hallmark of our criminal justice system, has effectively been eliminated. In felony cases involving serious crimes ranging from manslaughter to burglary, the law has handcuffed judges by eliminating their discretion to determine the danger to our communities in pretrial criminal proceedings, allowing potential repeat offenders to walk free.

So now a law passed mainly by New York City legislators to cure a problem in NYC Courts requires our elected judges in Upstate New York to disregard clear threats to public safety. Determining whether to hold persons accused of a crime pending trial or to impose conditions for their release is the essence of judicial discretion. A City Court judge in the Capital District hit the nail on the head when he noted that, “a judge unable to make judgments is not a judge.”

There has been no shortage of cases that demonstrate the urgent need to address this problem.

As the Governor gave his State of the State address, he did so only miles away from where a man was released after being charged with manslaughter in the death of a six-week-old baby under his care. In a neighboring county, a man was arrested for threatening a school shooting only to be released on his own recognizance hours later. The silence on this case from a political party that constantly lectures us about the need for laws to limit the rights of law-abiding gun owners in New York was stunning.

While reducing unnecessary incarceration is a laudable goal, the real-world results of this flawed legislation have caused legitimate concerns from crime victims, police, prosecutors and judges across the state. However, the Majority politicians who control the Assembly have so far demonstrated little or no interest in repealing or even reforming this measure.

The common refrain from the Speaker of the Assembly and other supporters is that police departments and prosecutors should help the Legislature make the new law work. That’s a good idea, but shouldn’t the “working together” phase have taken place before the legislation was rammed through both houses? The fact that this “reform” was approved without any meaningful input or a single public hearing is unconscionable.

Given the origins of this law, it is no surprise that we are now scrambling to address flaws and tragic consequences. Passing this type of legislation as part of the massive $175 billion state budget in the dead of the night without any public input was a big mistake that should not be repeated. That is why I am proud to support Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay’s legislation that will prohibit such non-budget related policy items from consideration in the passage of the final state budget.

The Governor said recently that the criminal justice reforms are “complicated” and a “work in progress,” but the time for delay is over. As leaders, we have a responsibility to act now. This law must be repealed immediately. We need to start over with a process that includes the law enforcement community and gives these important issues the time and attention they deserve.

Public safety should not be a “work in progress.” I encourage all concerned citizens to sign the Assembly Minority Conference’s bail reform repeal petition and to contact the Governor and your state legislators. In a democracy, your voice matters, and it is time to be heard.