It took nearly 10 years, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have finally miscalculated the politics he is so adept at.
Taxes, congestion pricing, rent regulation, gun control — he has never suffered much blowback, either because they are the right policies, or they’re too complex to grasp. But last year, when he eliminated cash bail for most alleged criminals, he may have given himself a dual headache: a “reform” that the public can instantly grasp was a bad idea, and one that is hard to fix without trading a lot of other things away to the emboldened state Legislature.
The law that Cuomo signed to end most cash bail — setting defendants free shortly after an arrest — isn’t what he said he would sign a year previously.
In January 2018, Cuomo said that “we must reform our bail system so a person is only held if a judge finds either a significant flight risk or a real threat to public safety.” All right.
But by January 2019, that critical “threat-to-public-safety” provision was gone. Last year, Cuomo said that he would eliminate “cash bail once and for all.”
And that is what the Legislature did. Only people accused of the most violent felonies will remain in jail before trial.
Non-violent felonies are often … violent. They include vehicular manslaughter and even some robbery, assault, kidnapping, stalking and regular manslaughter charges.
Early examples of how no-cash-bail is working include Farkell Hopkins, accused of killing a pedestrian while driving drunk, and Tiffany Harris, accused of two anti-Semitic attacks.
Harris is the perfect example of how keeping someone in jail for a seemingly minor crime — allegedly slapping three people — can prevent a bigger crime. After her first release, Harris allegedly punched a fourth victim, only to be released again; she is in jail now only because she skipped court-ordered treatment.
So why did Cuomo drop this provision, requiring judges to consider whether a “non-violent” person like Hopkins or Harris could pose public danger?
What happened between 2018 and 2019? The election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a slew of equally progressive state legislators, from Jessica Ramos to Julia Salazar. The insurgent faction opposes most law enforcement on the grounds that it criminalizes poverty, although most poor people don’t commit crimes.
Cuomo had better pray that the criminal class has resolved to go straight in the New Year. If crime rises as accused habitual criminals have the chance to commit new crimes while free, the public will blame him. In New York City, voters won’t blame the mayor: Bill de Blasio managed to keep crime down during his first six years in office and is leaving soon.
Voters won’t blame Carl Heastie or Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Legislature’s leaders, either — because voters don’t know who they are.
And it isn’t just “voters” who will blame Cuomo: It’s swing voters in downstate suburbs in Westchester and Long Island, Cuomo’s favorite people. These are moms who don’t like President Trump, but are fearful of MS-13.
Cuomo has taken accountability without control, a critical error. The justice system is inconsistent and opaque and will remain so after bail “reform.” In many cases, including Hopkins and Harris, a lenient judge might have released the defendant on low bail anyway.
And in violent cases, including robbery and assault, whether bail is set will still be up to the prosecutor and judge, just as it always was. Does an assault rise to “violence”? Now, if a prosecutor opts for the lesser charge or the judge opts for no bail, it’s the governor who will take the blame.
Cuomo has made another error: potentially alienating not just the average person hit in the head during a robbery, but organized constituencies. Politically astute groups work to prevent domestic violence, traffic deaths and hate crimes against Jews, gay people and minorities. Bail reform, as the Harris case demonstrates, makes these harder to prevent.
But it’s easy to fix, right? Add the missing provision back in this year’s legislative session, the one that required judges to consider a defendant’s potential danger.
But now, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins know that they have something the governor needs — and they will make him pay. Heastie has already said he wants tax hikes, which are now a Democratic boasting point rather than a last resort. Tenant advocates aren’t satisfied with the rent regulation won last year. They, too, want more.
Cuomo needs a get-out-of-jail card, and the rest of us will pay for it.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images