NY significant changes to criminal justice

Source Brennan Center: During the eventful summer session, New York legislators made significant changes to criminal justice policy. They revised the state’s bail reform law for the third time in four years, passed the Clean Slate Act to automatically seal old criminal records, and rewrote the post-conviction laws around wrongful convictions.

In 2019, the legislature passed a major reform that ended the use of money bail and jail in most cases involving misdemeanors and lower-level felonies. Judges were required to impose the “least restrictive” conditions of release to ensure a defendant’s return to court. However, just a few months later, the legislation was revised due to concerns about rising crime. The changes expanded the circumstances in which bail could be set, allowing judges to set bail in cases involving harm to an identifiable person or property committed while released after being charged with a similar offense.

Two years later, the legislature further expanded this provision, broadening the definition of “harm” and raising the possibility of setting bail in cases involving repeat shoplifting offenses. The 2022 amendments also outlined factors that judges must consider when setting conditions of release, including criminal history.

Negotiations over further changes to bail and pretrial detention stalled the state budget for weeks. One controversial proposal would have allowed judges to set bail based on perceived public safety risks, deviating from New York’s focus on setting only necessary conditions for court appearances. Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to remove the provision requiring judges to set the “least restrictive” release option legally available, potentially leading to more frequent use of bail.

Despite these changes, money bail is still not permitted for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, with some exceptions for rearrested individuals.

In addition to bail reform, the legislature passed the Clean Slate Act, which automatically seals most criminal records, limiting access to employers and landlords. The bill aims to alleviate the long-lasting economic and social consequences of a criminal record. However, exclusions exist for records of sex offenses, and non-drug related Class A felonies, and individuals must complete any community supervision before becoming eligible for sealing. Certain employers in specific fields will still have access to sealed records.

The Clean Slate Act gained support from various groups, including business and labor organizations, highlighting the need to expand the state’s workforce and provide more opportunities for individuals with criminal records.

Lastly, the legislature passed the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, making it easier for individuals to argue in court that they were wrongfully convicted. The act creates a new statutory right to overturn a conviction based on actual innocence and allows those who plead guilty to raise this argument. It also removes legal hurdles for filing challenges and provides court-appointed attorneys and access to evidence.

These criminal justice reform bills were passed toward the end of the session, deviating from the usual practice of including them in the state budget. The passage of these bills signifies a cautious approach to criminal justice reform in New York.

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