Albany Times Union
Bail training for judges weighed
Citing “confusion” about reform, senator raises prospect of mandatory education
ALBANY — Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday expressed interest in requiring mandated training for judges, a proposal that is largely the result of the state’s changes to bail laws that have been the subject of heated debate across the state and in the Legislature.
The training, though, may not necessarily be limited to the bail statutes.
“It’s time for us to actually have mandates on the education and training that our judges have,” state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-manhattan, said during a budget hearing at the Capitol on Tuesday. “It’ll go a long way to decreasing the confusion.”
Krueger, the chair of the influential Finance Committee, raised the prospect of in-service training as she posed questions to New York court officials during a hearing focused on the state’s criminal justice system.
Her comments came in the backdrop of a recent proposal by Gov. Kathy Hochul to change the standard by which judges consider whether to set bail for a defendant when a “serious” offense has been alleged.
Krueger insisted her training recommendation is not necessarily tied to the debate on whether judges are appropriately applying the state’s bail laws as lawmakers had intended. She pointed to attorneys and doctors who routinely are required to undergo education and testing to keep their licenses.
“It’s a point in history where it’s time to actually have required educational upgrades and training on an ongoing basis for judges,” said Krueger, who chaired the lengthy hearing in the Legislative Office Building that covered issues from prison staffing to replacing the State Police’s outdated and antiquated crime laboratory in Albany.
As the hearing labored through the day, advocates and lobbyists filled the Capitol’s halls, some of whom were there to discuss proposed changes to the bail laws. It marked the first major “lobbying day” since the governor released her $227 billion budget last week, which set off a two-month frenzy of policy and spending negotiations.
Krueger’s sentiments were not rejected by the administrator and counsel for the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, Robert H. Tembeckjian. He said it’s “essential” for the “public to have confidence in the quality of justice,” which includes judges having proper training.
“If it is mandated, and I believe it can be, then we can take action when those judges fail to meet the mandate,” Tembeckjian said.
Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, later in the day, told reporters he is open to mandating training for judges.
“It’s always good when there’s clarity in the law and the legislative intent, which is usually well described,” Heastie said. “If that helps in the situation, I’d be fine with that.”
The Legislature, advocates and law enforcement leaders have continued to debate whether judges are following the intent of the statutory changes that went into effect in 2020 — legislation that was passed after Democrats took over both houses with political supermajorities.
Last year, Hochul directed some criticism toward judges, saying they have “the tools they need” to set bail on qualifying offenses, including violent felonies and those who face multiple open charges for retail theft or domestic violence. Hochul, in August, was in the middle of a governor’s race in which her Republican opponent had zeroed in on crime, particularly bail, as a top issue for voters and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, who was criticizing her for not providing more “discretion” to judges.
Hochul responded by pointing to tweaks in those statutes last year that gave judges more leeway in setting bail.
“I’m not sure why everybody intentionally ignores this, but people try to make political calculations based on this,” Hochul said in August. “If they read what we’ve now given judges to consider, no longer do judges simply consider whether there is a likelihood of a person returning to court.”
Rossana Rosado, commissioner of the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, said during this week’s hearing that Hochul has proposed to change the state’s bail law by removing the “least-restrictive” standard to ensure a defendant returns to court because “judges have inconsistently applied these reforms.”
The sentiment was rebuffed during the hearing by the Office of Court Administration’s acting Chief Administrative Judge Tamiko Amaker, who rejected any assertion that the state’s judges are either not welltrained or are bucking the intent of the law.
“I don’t think the majority of judges who make these decisions don’t understand what their options are,” Amaker said about bail decisions in criminal cases. “They’re just looking at the specific circumstances that are before them.”
Amaker said out of the 1,300 New York City judges presiding in criminal cases, about 1,000 of them took part in training on the bail laws, which would leave about a quarter of those judges without in-person training on the changes. She said the “overwhelming majority” have completed the nonrequired training.
Amaker added that there are separate materials on how to implement the bail provisions that are available online to judges, but she declined to provide those materials to the public.
“Those training materials really are internal,” Amaker said.
The proposal by Hochul would remove language the administration argues is making it challenging for judges when deciding how to set bail. Public defenders and certain Democrats have quickly opposed the measure and prosecutors and some Republicans have supported it.
The current language, after controversial changes last year, includes a list of 10 variables judges are to weigh when determining whether to set bail to ensure someone’s return to court, which include a number of factors that critics view as measures of potential “danger” to the community. The bail law, though, asks for judges to set the “least restrictive means” to ensure that someone shows up to their next court date.
A Times Union analysis of state data suggest judges, under the proposed rule change, may end up setting bail or remanding at least an additional 10 percent of defendants in violent felony cases, which could account for at least a couple thousand cases.
“Wouldn’t the better concern be to train the judges to more consistently apply the reforms?” Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-bronx, said during the hearing.
“I don’t think it’s an either/ or,” Rosado said. “There could be more done in training judges to make sure they’re not confused.”