By Kevin Deutsch and Sasha Gonzales
A group of fourteen prosecutors from cities across the U.S., including the District Attorneys of Brooklyn and Albany, sent a letter to Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature Wednesday calling for an end to money bail in New York.
Not among the signees: Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Staten Island DA Michael McMahon, and outgoing Queens DA Richard Brown.
Bronx DA Darcel Clark favors ending cash bail, DA’s Office Spokeswoman Patrice O’Shaughnessy said, and “would have joined the letter if asked.”
“We support ending money bail because safety, not wealth, should be the defining feature of the pretrial justice system,” the group of signees, which includes the district attorneys of San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Dallas, wrote. “Three out of every four people in New York cannot afford to pay the bail amount that the judge sets at their arraignment. That means many people are jailed simply because they are too poor to purchase their freedom. Ending the detention of people solely because they are poor requires ending the use of money bail.”
Bronx Justice News has requested comment from the Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island DA’s Offices and is awaiting replies.
The lobbying by the 14 prosecutors comes as state legislators weigh a trio of bills aimed at reforming New York’s criminal justice system. Proponents say the bills would collectively ensure that comprehensive discovery materials are turned over by prosecutors before plea deals are made; guarantee speedy trials; and end the money bail system for most cases.
Cuomo said Wednesday he won’t approve the annual state budget unless reform legislation is passed. But with various law enforcement groups and politicians still opposed, prospects for passage remain unclear.
Among those formerly opposed to the legislation was Albany DA David Soares – president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York – who, after criticizing the bills for placing too great a burden on prosecutors, changed his stance in recent days.
Soares signed the letter in his personal capacity rather than as president of DAASNY, which represents all 62 New York DA’s and has voiced opposition to the proposed reforms.
Soares and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, who has voiced unequivocal support for the legislation, joined other high-profile DA’s including Philadelphia’s Lawrence Krasner and Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby in signing the letter.
The group wrote that ending the money bail system would “create positive ripple effects for families and communities across New York,” but that other bail reforms are also needed.
“New York needs an overhaul to its bail system that will sharply decrease the number of people locked in jail each night,” the letter reads. “Hence we also support establishing a presumption that people should be released pretrial for all but the most serious offenses. The only people who should be detained pretrial are those who a judge finds pose a specific, clear and credible threat to the physical safety of the community, or who are a risk of intentionally evading their court dates.”
Criminal justice reform has failed numerous times in Albany during the past three decades. Proponents say its passage now is vital.
Thousands of New Yorkers unable to make money bail are routinely held on Rikers Island and other pre-trial detention facilities, despite their never having been convicted of a crime, proponents say. Judges routinely set money bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, leaving these facilities overcrowded. And an overburdened court system means Bronx defendants often wait two, three, even four years or more before going to trial, data show.
Opponents of the legislation say it would threaten public safety. Critics have focused on the pending discovery bill in particular, arguing it could lead to early release of names of endangered witnesses, thus jeopardizing their safety.
Proponents of the bill dispute that characterization, saying the legislation includes built-in protections that would give judges leeway to withhold witness identities whenever necessary – the same power they currently possess.