For the second year running, Assembly Member Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) is going on a hunger strike in a bid to stop Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed changes to the state’s bail laws from getting into the state budget, she announced after visiting Rikers Island on Thursday.
The state spending plan is now nearly a week late, after Hochul and legislative leaders blew past its April 1 deadline due to ongoing disagreements on whether to further rollback 2019 reforms to the state’s cash bail system — according to the governor and leaders of both chambers. The 2019 laws eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
Last year, the state budget was nine days late due to Hochul’s ultimately successful attempts to get a previous round of changes to the pretrial detention laws implemented in the state budget. Walker — who sponsored the original 2018 reforms to the bail laws — went on an 18-day hunger strike last year in an unsuccessful bid to prevent those changes from going through.
That’s a tactic Walker intends to use again, she said on Thursday afternoon during a news conference following a visit with several of her state legislative colleagues to Rikers Island. The group argued that additional changes to the bail laws would condemn more people — who have been charged but not convicted of a crime — to languishing at the troubled island jail, where there were 19 deaths last year.
The Brooklyn lawmaker said she’d begin abstaining from eating this Sunday, which is Easter Sunday, on behalf of the people detained on the island pretrial who she spoke with on Thursday.
“I submit that I will do another hunger strike beginning on Easter Sunday in honor of all the people who we had a conversation with today who are depending on us,” Walker told reporters. “This is what I will submit to do, to speak on behalf of these people who are not criminals, but who have been accused and charged with a crime and awaiting their day in court.”
“We are asking for our colleagues to hold strong and hold fast,” she added. “We don’t have to do this. We don’t have to play these political word games and put justice, fairness and integrity on the line.”
The issue is currently undergoing fierce debate among Albany lawmakers, with the budget not expected to pass until early next week.
Hochul is seeking to remove the so-called “least restrictive means standard,” which requires judges to consider the least onerous way of getting defendants to show up to court, for “serious” offenses. She believes dropping the standard will clear up confusion among judges about how much discretion they have in setting bail for serious crimes.
While speaking outside the island jail complex, Walker expressed shock that the standard could be eliminated while Democrats control the Governor’s Mansion, the state Senate and Assembly.
“Here we are, Democratic governors —first female governor who understands pocketbook issues, Democratic Senate, Democratic Assembly, and we are going to get changes in our criminal justice laws that have never taken place in our state,” Walker said. “This is a wholesale violation of our constitutional rights. No one on that island has been convicted, unless of course you’re serving a sentence under 365 days, and I didn’t meet any of those individuals. No one has been convicted of a crime.”
Both state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have said they’re open to clarifying the 2019 reforms, while preserving the intent of the law — to prevent those charged with low-level crimes from being jailed pretrial simply for not having the money to post bail.
Yet talks have continued to stall based on disagreements among lawmakers over whether there’s an actual or perceived connection between bail reform and crime.
Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, who was also in attendance Thursday, said the bail tweaks Hochul wants would go much further than just reversing the 2019 laws and would have a devastating effect.
“Our governor is here proposing, as Latrice said, not a rollback, but an attack on laws across New York state that we have had for decades,” Mamdani said. “And what they mean in fact, in plain language, is a sentence of death for many New Yorkers. Because they will send more New Yorkers to Rikers Island, an island where 19 New Yorkers lost their lives just last year. We will have blood on our hands if we allow there to be these changes implemented in our New York state budget.”
Hochul’s office did not respond for comment by publication time.