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Suffolk Closeup: Bail-reform battle

My first beat as a reporter at the daily Long Island Press was covering cops-and-courts in Suffolk County.

Back then, the bail issue was a vexing one in Suffolk, as it is today here and elsewhere in New York State, notably in the wake of what is known as “reform” of the bail system in the state.

It was obvious back in the middle 1960s that if a person had the money, or property to put up as security, he or she was released on bail. If not, the person was sent to jail to wait, sometimes for months, to be tried. More than a few defendants who ended up being judged innocent thus served jail time anyway.

There has been great controversy in recent weeks over the release in Suffolk without bail of four suspects arrested in connection with human body parts found strewn in parks on Long Island, including in Babylon. The charges were: concealment of a human corpse, tampering with physical evidence and hindering prosecution, all felonies.

Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney issued a press release on March 6 declaring: “It is our understanding that the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) is still investigating these murders. Unfortunately, due to ‘Bail Reform’ passed by the New York State Legislature in 2019, charges relating to the mutilation and disposal of murdered corpses is no longer bail-eligible, meaning my prosecutors cannot ask for bail. This is yet another absurd result thanks to ‘Bail Reform’ and a system where the Legislature in Albany substitutes their judgment for the judgment of our judges and the litigants in court.”

The DA, a Republican, went on: “We will work with the SCPD to resolve this investigation as soon as possible and implore our Legislature to make common sense fixes to this law.”

His statement was followed by one from Kevin McCaffrey of Lindenhurst, presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, also a Republican, scorning “the focus of progressive liberal-controlled Albany.”

The Democratic majorities in the State Legislature “through the adoption of misguided and irresponsible legislation” moved “to take the handcuffs off of criminals and put them on law enforcement by making it harder, if not impossible in certain instances, for them to do their job,” McCaffrey said. “The state’s adoption of irresponsible so-called ‘Bail Reform’ legislation has created a revolving door justice system where numerous violent criminals are released almost immediately after arrest, free to walk our streets.”

McCaffrey, also a Teamsters Union leader, continued that the “release of four people charged with the mutilation and disposal of murdered corpses which was mandated by this ‘reform’ legislation may be the most egregious example of how these ‘reforms’ have tied the hands of our law enforcement and our district attorney, putting the public’s safety at risk. The law must be changed, now. We are once again calling upon Albany to repeal these laws to protect the welfare of our citizens.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said in a TV interview: “Maybe the DA should have done a more thorough investigation and brought murder charges — or conspiracy to commit murder — even assault charges because all of them are bail-eligible.” Hochul, a lawyer, said, “Maybe they brought [the case] a little early.” She said: “I encourage the DA’s office to go back and build your case.”

DA Tierney responded by saying Hochul is “either absolutely clueless or being deceitful about how the criminal justice system works.” He said: “Prosecutors have a duty to bring only charges that are supported by evidence. Anything else would be unethical. When law enforcement had enough evidence to arrest those defendants for serious felonies, they did the right thing and made those arrests.”

And in the State Legislature, measures are now being introduced to add “concealing a human corpse” to bail-eligible crimes. Sen. Monica Martinez of Brentwood and Assemblyman Steve Stern of Huntington, both Democrats, are moving on a bill. Sen. Anthony Palumbo of New Suffolk, who represents Shelter Island, is among a group of Republicans sponsoring another bill.

Palumbo, a former Suffolk assistant DA, says: “I don’t think anyone would argue that a world where people charged with the crime of body dismemberment can walk back out onto the streets is a good place, yet here in New York that is the world in which we are living thanks to Democrats’ failed criminal justice policies.”

As for bail for the other felonies and the host of misdemeanors eliminated in the 2019 changes, Hochul is saying it is “very clear that changes need to be made” and “judges should have more authority to set bail and detain dangerous defendants.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union in a web posting titled “The Facts on Bail Reform” says: “In 2019, New York lawmakers passed legislation that eliminated the use of cash bail for most misdemeanors and some nonviolent felony charges in an overdue recognition that a person’s wealth should not determine liberty.” However, “in 2020 prosecutors and police departments led a misinformation campaign that resulted in roll backs of the 2019 reforms. Now opponents of the bail law are determined to spread more misinformation and fear, threatening due process and push New York even further backward.”

Has the State Legislature gone too far in altering bail laws? My view: Yes.