FORESTBURGH, NY — As the common saying has it, safety regulations are often written in blood. Lawmakers, law enforcement officials and fire service members gathered at the Forestburgh Fire …
FORESTBURGH, NY — As the common saying has it, safety regulations are often written in blood. Lawmakers, law enforcement officials and fire service members gathered at the Forestburgh Fire House on February 5 to discuss just such a piece of regulation.
The conference was held to announce “Billy’s Law” (NY State Senate Bill S.8181), a piece of legislation introduced by Sen. Mike Martucci in honor of William “Billy” Steinberg. The law would exempt arson in the third- and fourth-degree from the bail reform statues, letting law enforcement officials keep suspects of those charges in custody.
William Steinberg was a fourth-generation volunteer firefighter with the Forestburgh Volunteer Fire Department. He passed away on January 15, having suffered a heart attack in the line of duty at a structure fire in the Town of Thompson. He was 37 years old.
The fire was reportedly set by a serial arsonist. That arsonist had previously been arrested on suspected arson charges and had been released on his own recognizance on January 14, the day before the fire, according to a press release sent out by Martucci’s office following the event.
The Steinberg family reached out to Martucci’s office following William Steinberg’s death to see what could be done to keep the tragedy from reoccuring. “Billy’s Law” came out of those conversations, and is being sponsored by Martucci in the state Senate and by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther in the state Assembly.
“If New York’s bail reform law was not in place, this individual would have been retained in the Sullivan County Jail the first time he was arrested,” said Jim Steinberg, William Steinberg’s father, speaking at the conference. “But unfortunately, because of the bail reform, he was released, allowing him to set yet one more fire that ultimately took Billy’s life. The system has failed our community, my family and Billy.”
New York State’s bail reform laws have been a source of controversy since their passage.
The reforms eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, letting those arrested on such charges go free and not be forced to pay bail or be jailed until trial. Supporters of the reforms praised them for eliminating a two-tiered system of justice, where freedom depended on one’s ability to pay. The reform’s opponents claimed it put dangerous criminals back on the streets.
Martucci has made repealing bail reform a key element of his political platform, winning election as a critic of the laws and declaring the issue one of his top priorities during the announcement of his campaign for re-election.
And law enforcement officials within Sullivan County have spoken often of the laws’ impacts; Sheriff Michael Shiff has appeared with Martucci at press conferences and in campaign ads to discuss the laws’ dangers.
Under bail reform, people within the county have been arrested, have been released with an appearance ticket and have gone on to commit other crimes, according to county undersheriff Eric Chaboty. Reforms have made the county less safe, he says; judges aren’t allowed to consider factors such as the likelihood that a person will re-offend, or whether they are dangerous to the community.
The county’s parole office has noted the effects of bail reform as well. Speaking before the county legislature on January 13, probation director Pennie Huber said that the numbers and the types of cases her department saw had changed following the passage of bail reform. “Our pretrial release program has continued to grow due to bail reform. We are receiving more cases that we would never have normally seen, such as vehicular manslaughter, kidnapping, weapons charges—we have two seperate murder cases and several sex offense cases due to the bail reform.”
Public safety officials and legislators alike spoke against bail reform at the press conference for Billy’s Law, calling for judges to have more discretion in the setting of bail and the consideration of individual circumstances.
But the focus of the event—and of the law—wasn’t on bail reform as a whole. It was on the circumstances of William Steinberg’s death, and what needed to be done to prevent those circumstances from leading to the death of another volunteer firefighter.
“For the safety of our firefighters, our community members and our property… we cannot let this go without a solution,” said Gunther. “I am happy to be introducing a bill into the Assembly to make sure that this never happens again.”
Speaking to the press following the event, Martucci said that the goal of “Billy’s Law” was to set aside the political debate around bail reform, to sever felony arson charges from the bail reform statue, and to focus on a narrow public safety concern. If successfully passed, the law would be the first to modify bail reform since a package of modifications that passed with the 2020 budget.
“Certainly I think that reforming bail reform overall is going to be a much more difficult lift,” Martucci said. “The reason this legislation was crafted the way that it was was because it looks very specifically at protecting volunteer fire service members and members of the community.
“I think what we can all agree on, regardless of how you feel about overall bail reform, is the fact that serial arsonists belong in jail… So really the goal of this legislation is to say let’s leave the politics of bail reform aside for a moment, and focus on a piece of legislation that’s really about public safety.”
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