ALBANY, NY (WSKG) – On Jan. 1, several new laws take effect in New York, including major changes to the criminal justice system.
New York will end cash bail for people accused of nonviolent crimes, and prosecutors will have to promptly turn over to defendants the evidence that they have against them.
Supporters say that in the past, those accused of crimes who could not make bail spent weeks, or even months, in jail without learning what evidence a prosecutor has against them until their trial began. Many pleaded guilty to lesser charges without knowing if the prosecutor had evidence that could exonerate them.
There has been backlash from law enforcement groups, though, who say they are concerned that repeat offenders could walk free.
Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond, an officer with the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, said at a news conference in late fall that the elimination of bail for nonviolent drug offenses might make it harder to curb the illegal drug trade.
“Is it rational to think that a person who is caught with thousands of bags of heroin will show up to court once released?” DuMond asked. “And face a 15- to 25-year prison sentence?”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who shepherded the criminal justice reforms through his chamber, said the new laws are meant to change a “racist and classist system.” He said other states, including Republican-dominated Texas, have enacted similar reforms with no significant negative consequences.
“Deep red states have made changes in criminal justice reform,” Heastie said. “I understand people are resistant to change. I understand the district attorneys and the sheriffs are resistant to change. But everywhere else that this has been done, it’s been shown to be a more fair system and has not led to an increase in crime.”
Also in 2020, New Yorkers who earn the minimum wage will see their pay go up. It increases to $15 an hour in New York City, $13 an hour on Long Island and in Westchester, and $11.80 upstate.
Some of the state’s elected officials also will be receiving a pay raise.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, along with the attorney general and state comptroller, will be getting a salary increase, but members of the Legislature will not.
Senators and Assembly members for now won’t get the second phase of a pay raise approved in late 2018 by a commission. Legislators received the first portion of their raise in 2019, when their annual salaries went from $79,500 to $110,000.
But the second and third years of the raise, which would ultimately result in a $130,000 salary, was linked to strict limits in outside income. Two former legislative leaders were sentenced to prison in scandals linked to outside pay.
Some lawmakers challenged the provision to limit other income in court and won. The case is on appeal, but for now, the state comptroller’s office said the pay raise will not be included in legislators’ paychecks in 2020. If the lower court ruling is ultimately overturned, then the raises would be reinstated, and lawmakers would be paid the additional money, retroactively, from the beginning of the year.
The commission did not place any restrictions on outside income for statewide offices. The governor, who was paid $179,000 a year, saw a pay increase to $200,000 in 2019, and will receive $225,000 a year in 2020 and $250,000 in 2021. The lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller will receive $210,000 a year in 2020, from $151,500 in 2018.
The paid family leave law expands in 2020, and farmworkers for the first time will be eligible for the benefit. They, along with other workers, can take up to 10 weeks off to care for sick family member or a new baby, and receive 60% of their wages, capped at $840.70 a week.
Later in the year, on March 1, single-use plastic bags will be outlawed, although uncertainties remain over just how the state will carry out the new law.
Both opponents and advocates, including Liz Moran of the New York Public Interest Research Group, say new regulations issued by the state Department of Environmental Conservation are confusing.
“These regulations could really muddy the water,” Moran said.
Also new in 2020 is an earlier election cycle. For the first time, primary elections for state offices will be held in June, at the same time as primaries for federal offices. That means challengers need to start gathering petitions in February.