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Zeldin continues bail reform debate on campaign trail

Zeldin has campaigned on bail reform since before a man attempted to attack him on stage at a campaign event this summer. He renewed that push on Thursday.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Bail reform continues to be a big topic on the campaign trail in the race for Governor.

Republican candidate Lee Zeldin and his running mate made stops in Buffalo on Thursday, and also in Rochester, trying to draw attention to the issue as they call for cashless bail reform.

Zeldin has campaigned on bail reform since before a man attempted to attack him on stage at a campaign event this summer. He renewed that push on Thursday to get Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers to address the dangers of releasing certain suspects from police custody.

Zeldin used the example of Scott Saracina, who is from the Town of Hamburg and has a criminal history of domestic violence going back decades. In August, Saracina was arrested again and charged with rape. He was held without bail, and if he's convicted, he faces up to 25 years in prison.

But Saracina was also charged with stalking and harassment earlier in the year and released on his own recognizance three times. 

"In this particular case, the judge did not have discretion. When the tweak was made to the bail laws in the budget, this is one of the many examples you can provide of where they didn't go far enough. Why wouldn't the judge have discretion, even at that point, once the budget passes to be able to have this person remanded? But it wasn't retroactive," Zeldin said.

Attorney and legal analyst Barry Covert disagrees with this premise, saying the judge had discretion back in February and March based on Saracina's criminal history and could have kept him in custody.

"He is out on parole," Covert said. "He could have been remanded based upon his violation of parole pending the outcome of the parole hearing, so this is not a good example to derive that from, but if they have other specific instances where the Bail Reform Act should be changed or amended, they should bring that forward.

"But let's not lose the underlying constitutional principle that until you're convicted, you should not be punished, and they're seeking to punish individuals who have been charged but not convicted. That is unconstitutional."

2 On Your Side reached out to Governor Hochul's campaign for a response to all of this. She's the one who proposes the budget, so those were her changes made to bail reform this spring giving judges more discretion on when they can set cash bail.

Hochul's campaign sent us two transcripts (see below) from interviews she did last week where she was asked about bail reform. Her campaign did not respond, though, to the specific case brought up by Zeldin on Thursday and did not provide a new response.

The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC: Gov. Hochul on Her First Year

I will say that keeping Yorkers safe is my number one job. Has been, always will be. And that's what keeps me up at night. And if people don't feel safe on the streets or in the subways, then that's something I take personally. So we did make targeted changes, very specific changes to the bail reforms that had been instituted back in 2019. But that's part of a comprehensive plan to protect public safety. What we had to do, Brian was close loopholes that were in place to let repeat offenders go back out on the streets, or cases that involve guns or hate crimes. None of them were bail eligible, meaning that there would be a case where a judge would simply send them back. But we also [inaudible] this question of dangerousness. Quite a [inaudible] worth of you know, and extremely subjective. You know, this is what we've learned, someone walks in to a judge, and sometimes dangerousness, this is determined by the color of their skin and a perception of dangerousness. And that is an unfair system that is not a justice system that we can be proud of. So what we did was he gave power in the bail reform that I worked really hard to get through. And it was not an easy lift, that judges now can consider the severity of the crime. It passed a fence was an order of protection violated? So we now are focusing on that. And so that gives the judges more to look at than they had been before. So we're making the right changes, but we're not going backwards. And so that's that's why I focus on gun safety, getting illegal guns off the streets, which is the major concern we have. I had the head of ATF out of Washington, come and applauded yesterday, how well we're doing in New York State and getting guns off the streets, our shootings are down. But again, I'm not citing statistics to say we're done. We're just really focused on this all day long, 24 hours a day and will not relent on focusing on public safety, until we can even do more to make sure people feel safe the way they had been before the pandemic.

New York Now: Gov. Kathy Hochul and Her First Year in Office with Dan Clark

I think about this first thing in the morning, last thing at night. I truly do. I don't want anyone to be harmed by or victimized by a crime, and they deserve to have security and safety. I believe in targeted changes, as we've done with the bail reform. We now have gun cases covered, hate crimes covered, repeat offenders now covered. Those are there for the district attorneys and the judges to follow. That should result in a reduction in crime. But there's other areas. That's just one approach, and that's not responsible for the nationwide increase in crime, as you mentioned. We're still the safest state, the safest big city, New York City, in America, even though crime is up everywhere. But as long as there are people who are anxious about it, I'm anxious about this. I'm going to focus on it. But we also have enhanced red flag laws, getting the guns out of hands of people who, whether it's through social media, or in other ways in a school, have telegraphed that they have been tempted to do harm to themselves or someone else. We've been aggressive in that we now have a record number of cases that are being brought with those extreme risk orders of protection. Making sure that after the Buffalo massacre, that an 18-year-old can't walk into a store and buy an AR-15, as in this case, went down to Pennsylvania, got an enhanced magazine and was able to do something that should only have occurred on a military battlefield. So, we changed that law. You now need to have a background check to buy ammunition, we're going to have enhanced training. We've made changes to laws that people said were not possible. But through shear force and cooperation with the Legislature, we got them done. So, it is a multifaceted approach, and one that I'm not going to let up on. I just was on calls with everybody involved in law enforcement in the city of Rochester to help them get their crime rate down. And in the last three weeks since I last convened them, the numbers are trending in a better direction because we now have a better relationship. Our State Police are embedded in the Rochester Police Department. So that's what I'm doing, is finding out where I can be most helpful to help local law enforcement be able to reduce the crime rate.

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