Cuomo, in Bid to Help Poor, Proposes Ending Cash Bail for Minor Crimes

The governor’s proposals are likely to meet opposition from police unions, the bail bond industry, district attorneys and Republican lawmakers who control the Senate. The fate of the bills is far from clear in the legislative session and may depend on what incentives Mr. Cuomo can offer to the Republican opponents.

Taken together, the proposed bills address several aspects of the criminal justice system critics have long decried as unfair to the poor, chief among them the state’s cash bail system and its restrictive discovery law, which allows prosecutors to withhold important evidence against a defendant until the eve of trial.

These laws give a tremendous advantage to the police and prosecutors and, in effect, discriminate against defendants with few resources, who disproportionately are black or Hispanic, defense lawyers say. Impoverished people are often unable to pay the bail set by judges in their cases and spend months or years in jail, unable to help with their defenses, and without knowing the strength of the case against them, defense lawyers say. Many accept plea bargains just to end the ordeal.

The measure that Governor Cuomo is proposing would eliminate cash bail for people facing misdemeanor and nonviolent felonies. Instead defendants would be released, either on their own promise to return to court, or with some other conditions imposed by the judge.

Judges could still impose bail for serious violent crimes, like felony assault or rape, but only after reviewing a defendant’s finances.

At the same time, a second bill would loosen the state’s restrictive laws regarding when and how prosecutors must turn over their evidence to the defense, known as “discovery.”

Currently prosecutors can withhold some key evidence until the eve of trial, including the criminal histories of the state’s witnesses and the statements they have made to the grand jury and to law enforcement. The defense also must disclose the evidence it plans to present before trial, though in most criminal trials, most of the evidence is presented by the prosecution.

The governor’s proposal would compel the prosecution and the defense to share information earlier in the process, including the identity and background of witnesses. It would set deadlines for the state to turn over police reports and other evidence, in stages, within three months of the day a person is arraigned on charges, Mr. Cuomo’s aides said.

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