Just a few months ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed sure that criminal justice reform was imminent. During his annual State of the State address in January, he called for a legislative package that would limit civil asset forfeiture, reform discovery, reduce trial delays, and most notably, significantly reduce the use of cash bail. “For far too long, our antiquated criminal justice system has created a two-tier system where outcomes depend purely on economic status — undermining the bedrock principle that one is innocent until proven guilty,” Cuomo said.
To underscore the dysfunction of New York’s criminal justice system, Cuomo told the story of Kalief Browder. Browder was 16 when he was jailed for stealing a backpack. He spent three years imprisoned at Rikers Island because his family could not afford his $3,000 bail. His time in jail was marked by abuse from guards and fellow inmates alike, as well as long stints in solitary confinement. Browder maintained his innocence, and eventually the charges against him were dismissed. But it was too late—Rikers had destroyed him. Two years after his release, Browder committed suicide. As Cuomo vowed to fix the state’s bail system, he addressed Browder’s brother, an invited guest, directly. “Akeem,” he proclaimed to the young man sitting in the audience. “I want you to know that your brother did not die in vain. Sometimes the Lord works in strange ways — but he opened our eyes to the urgent need for real reform.… We will address it and you have my word on that.”
Cuomo’s aides characterized the legislative package as “the most progressive set of reforms in the nation.” But as he tried to corral support from defense lawyers and reform supporters, many of them remained troubled by some of the details. At best, with some wrangling, it would be only the beginning of what is inevitably going to be a long road. But it was something.
Advocates were especially hopeful for bail reform: One poll found that more than 70 percent of people supported pretrial release for those accused of misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies, as long as they weren’t a flight risk. Even more striking, more than 70 percent of crime victims supported release under those conditions. “There’s a real delta between what the public wants and what is currently happening,” Zoe Towns, of FWD.us, said. “We hope that the finding will really … encourage lawmakers to be bold on this issue.”
Until late March, it looked as if significant change might move forward. But then, suddenly, it was over. The budget, signed earlier this month and primarily negotiated in private by the governor and just three powerful legislators, did not include the criminal justice reforms Cuomo so adamantly supported just weeks ago. Despite what he said to Akeem, the budget doesn’t fund bail reform at all. As journalist Max Rivlin-Nadler wrote in this publication, “For bail reform advocates, including public defenders and advocates for incarcerated people, the plan’s failure serves as a bitter reminder of how difficult it is to eliminate cash bail, despite overwhelming support to do so.”
Whose fault is it that criminal justice reform failed in New York? While there’s plenty of blame to go around — a corrupt legislature, Cuomo’s craven maneuvering, the bail bond lobby — there’s one behind-the-scenes player whose influence gets little attention: the District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York (DAASNY).