For the New York State legislature, 2019 was a historic year. Hundreds of bills passed after Democratic lawmakers took control of the State Senate for the first time in a decade, leading to tenant-friendly laws, criminal justice reforms, the Child Victims Act, among others.
Among the most sweeping changes passed this year includes criminal justice reform, which did away with much of cash bail and has changed the rules for when prosecutors must turn over evidence to those accused of crimes. Other laws build on legislation passed in previous years, like minimum wage increases.
Here are some changes you can expect in January 2020:
Cash Bail And Discovery Reform
New York lawmakers have drastically changed the current bail laws to address how bail reform disproportionately targets low-income defendants who can't afford to pay bail. New York City has already started the process of releasing an estimated 880 people who would no longer require bail in January, though just 22 had been released by late November. The new law eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
The law also details protocol for judges to determine how much bail should be when it is permissible, such as allowing the defendants or their families to pay 10 percent of the total bail up front, with the remaining bail paid if the defendant doesn't show up for their court date, according to the Center for Court Innovation. Judges are also required to weigh individuals' ability to pay to avoid "undue hardship" and other considerations.
An analysis by the Center for Court Innovation found that of some 205,000 criminal cases, just 10 percent would require cash bail. The organization also estimates bail reform will slash the pretrial jail population by 2,100 people in New York City.
Calls to end cash bail were heightened after the 2015 suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent three years behind bars on Rikers Island waiting for his trial after being arrested for stealing a backpack. His family was unable to pay $3,000 in bail.
The criminal justice reform laws include changes in the discovery process—when prosecutors hand over evidence to the defense attorneys. Defense attorneys have said the existing laws, called "blindfold laws," pressures defendants to accept a plea bargain since prosecutors don't provide evidence to the defense until a trial begins.
The new regulations now require various materials used as evidence—like names, 911 calls and search warrants—to be given to the defense within 15 days of arraignment, with a 30-day extension under certain circumstances. The change allows time for the person accused of a crime to review the evidence against them.
Wages Increase For Small Businesses In NYC
The minimum wage will rise to $15 an hour for small businesses with fewer than 10 employees just before New Year's Day on December 31st.
The minimum wage—passed in 2016—has been steadily rising in New York. Last year, companies with 11 or more employees saw wages jump to $15. But even a $15 an hour wage rounds out to $31,200 a year, before taxes and if you work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year without paid time off.
But the increases are a different story for tipped workers. For food service workers and service employees, employers pay $10 and $12.50 an hour for companies with 11 or more employees.
Small businesses with 10 or fewer employees will begin paying that much by the year's end—from $9 to $10 for food service workers and $11.25 to $12.50 for other service employees.
The idea behind the dual-system between tipped and non-tipped workers is that tips from customers supplement the former's take-home pay. The system has sparked a debate over whether the tipped minimum wage should exist at all. In the meantime, tip your server.
The rest of the state is still waiting on their wages to rise to $15.
In Long Island and Westchester, the hourly wage will increase from $12 to $13. New Yorkers there still won't see a $15 minimum wage until the end of 2021.
For the rest of New York, wages will increase 70 cents, up to $11.80 this year. It is yet to be decided when the rest of the state will see a $15 minimum wage, except for fast food workers, who will see a $15 wage by the end of 2021 for all of New York. New York City fast food workers secured a $15 minimum wage last year.
Adoptees Can Get Birth Certificates When They Turn 18
Last month, Cuomo signed a law that allows adoptees to access their birth certificates after turning 18 years old—something formerly denied to people who were adopted.
With a birth certificate, information about who adoptees' biological parents are as well as medical history will be easier to find. A previous version of the bill was vetoed by Cuomo in 2017, the Post reported.
The law, passed in June, makes New York the 10th state to restore the right that adoptees once had, according to the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition. "Let's hope more states follow New York's lead," the coalition said after the bill passed.
The law goes into effect January 15th, according to the Post.
Voter Pre-Registration For 16- And 17-Year-Olds
A laundry list of voting reforms also passed this year, such as early voting, one set date for federal and state primaries to consolidate election days, and expanded voter hours in upstate New York.
Among those changes includes a law to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote before they turn 18. This means that when a New Yorker turns 18, they will be automatically registered to vote after pre-registering.
When Cuomo signed the law in January, Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins said, "We need more voices in our democracy, not fewer."
"Other states have taken the lead on issues like early voting, same-day registration, pre-registration, and no-excuse absentee voting. It is time for New York State to catch up, so we can once again lead the way forward," the Yonkers lawmaker said at the time.
The state's first-ever early voting period this fall drew 12,000 voters in its first weekend, albeit with some growing pains. Parents, teachers and principals want the Board of Elections out of public schools, which faced closures of gym and cafeteria areas during the voting period. More than half the early voting sites were at public schools.
Disability advocates also found accessibility was an issue. Some 64 percent of 72 surveyed sites had some type of accessibility barrier, according to The Center for Independence of the Disabled NY.
Insurance Companies Required To Cover IVF
Beginning in January, insurance companies will now be required to cover in vitro fertilization—a medical procedure often used by families with fertility challenges, same-sex couples or single women to have children.
Three cycles of IVF as well as any additional medications associated with the procedure under large group insurance policies, which include more than 100 employees. The new state law also prohibits age restrictions for IVF coverage, according to the governor's office.
The law could help some 2.4 million New Yorkers, per the Post, but those covered under Medicaid, companies with fewer than 100 employees, or those on individual plans. It is unclear whether the law will be extended to gay male couples because of how infertility is defined in the law, as following "12 months of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse or donor insemination." However, the legislation says insurers cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation.