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Westchester DA Talks About How His Office Is Functioning Amid COVID-19

Westchester County District Attorney Anthony Scarpino says his office is up and running while adhering to New York PAUSE — the state-ordered shutdown of schools and most businesses through at least April 29th.  Many employees are working remotely and participating in videoconferencing. Scarpino spoke with WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne about how this is working out, and more.

We're up and operational. What's happening though, is that we have 40 different jurisdictions in Westchester. But they've all been consolidated into two parts. So only two parts are operational in the county courthouse. So if an incident occurs in a different part of the county, let's say Yorktown, that'd be brought down to a part that's operational here. And so we have a local court part and we have a felony part. And so, you know, this is how we're doing it. And it's being done virtually. We have the ADAs and the defendants and legal aid.

They're all there, you know, by way of Skype or a video conference. The court system is, is on a pause right now. And so we are not doing any hearings, any trials, no grand jury proceedings, no jury trials, all that is being done or emergency arrangements and matters that are considered emergencies. So things are different, very different. The courts are not completely operational. We're pushing as many matters off until the time when, you know, we can be operating in a more normal fashion.

Have you experienced anything like this?

I never have. And, I mean, some people think I'm older. But the fact of the matter is I've spoken to people that have been around even longer than myself, we've never experienced anything like this. I don't think any District Attorney has ever experienced anything like this. Except maybe those that were, you know, in New York City at time of 9/11. It's just incredible. And we're all we are, everything is very fluid. We are learning and doing this as we proceed. It isn't like there was a, you know, playbook to do this.

With that said, though, looking optimistically to the day when this pandemic is under control, ends, and life gets "kind of back to normal". The backlog of cases. I mean, what are you, what are you thinking about looking down the road with all this backlog?

Well, there definitely is going to be backlog. And when things, you know, start being up and operational, the court system and the District Attorney's offices are all going to have to be working to double time to to accomplish what has to be accomplished. But during this period that matters are down, you know, the number of cases that are being filed are down. Now, we are still working, doing our discovery getting cases ready for trial. We are continuing investigation. Although it's more difficult when you don't have a grand jury to make a presentation to. So you know, we are keeping as much operational to be prepared to get back to normal when the time comes. But we, you know, I have to believe that it's going to be a gradual resumption, and we will be, you know, prepared to do that.

I wanted to ask you about the bail reforms that were passed in the state legislature and what you think of those and are they improvements or would you have liked to have just seen the bail reform as it as it were?

Well, there were several options that the legislature had, and the governor had, and one was to consider doing something more like New Jersey and the other was to try to do, you know, tweaking to the to this, you know, historic legislation that we have. They've decided to do a major tweaking, I believe when I say major, they've increased the number of the types of charges in which District Attorneys can seek and judges can set bail. And I think that that was very good, because there were many crimes that we were not allowed to seek bail on that we felt were violent, certain burglaries, sex trafficking cases, you know, promoting sexual performance by a child, you know, crimes that, you know, I found it very disturbing, you know, that, that we couldn't even seek bail on. People that had no prior felony convictions or people that were going back out after they were released to commit the similar offense. So they've made numerous changes to, to increase the number of cases and types of matters in which bail can be sought. And bail can be set. So I think it's, I feel that's an improvement.

In regards to, you know what we have here, but it's still historic. But what we have what is remaining is, is there's nothing like it anywhere in the country. As you know, the non-violent criminals, people that are charged with non-violent crimes, you know, are presumed to be released with some sort of monitoring, but more substantial, you know, serious criminal cases, A1 and A2 Narcotics types of cases and violent crimes. You know, we are now able, you know, to have an increased number of cases we can can seek bail on. So, it's very positive, I think, it takes effect 90 days from it becoming a law. So, you know, it's decided in effect yet.

I wanted to ask you about domestic violence, and there's concerns, you know, across the state, that there will be an uptick in domestic violence. What are you seeing in Westchester? And what are what are your words of caution?

Well, I'm very worried about domestic violence, Elder Abuse and Child Abuse. These are all special prosecution matters that we handle here in Westchester. And they concern me because although the, the reporting is down, and so the number of cases that are coming in, are down from previous periods... it's, it's, it may be very misleading, because we have, the way these cases generally come in, is, you know, when you have a person that is a victim of domestic violence, their abuser is when they leave the houses, when they have their escape plan or they make calls or people have contact with them. When nobody's leaving the house, they don't have the freedom to make those calls. So we're very concerned that even though the number of complaints are down, that increased number of incidents are occurring at this time, especially with besides you know, when you're dealing with child abuse, the way child abuse cases predominantly come to our attention is through schools or daycare centers or through societal groups, that spot and recognize that there seems to be something going on. These groups are not happening, the kids are not in school. And so these, you know, people that are perpetrating these types of offenses are getting the opportunity that the, you know, the victims are, are not being seen. And, and so, you know, we are convinced that the numbers are there, and that they are probably increasing. But just that the reporting is down.

Outside of what you just described, are there any crimes in Westchester that you're seeing more or less of because of social distancing and a lot of people not going to work etc.?

You know, I was, I saw the statistics from the state, and how crime has dropped precipitously. In Westchester, you know, from the beginning of March through the third week of March, law enforcement was operating, you know, sort of the way it always has been. So we didn't have any sort of noticeable drop at that time. But the last the last week, we've noticed a major drop and I would say it's because people are home.

So we're having a fewer home burglaries, are down, you know, cars, fewer cars being, you know, being stolen, those types of types of matters, you know, are definitely down. But as I said, we've had a tremendous drop in domestic violence numbers this last week or so. And, you know, we are concerned about that. So generally, you know, our crime has started to drop starting really that's the last week of March. You know, through the entire month of March, we only had it maybe 12.5% drop, but it really picked up that last week and now is continuing.

Scarpino says 65 inmates have been released from the county jail on the basis of COVID-19 concerns. His office has been working with the Legal Aid Society of Westchester and privately retained criminal defense attorneys to review case files of inmates who may merit early release. All 65 of those released by stipulation had release dates on or before June 26 and were serving sentences of one year or less.

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