Albany County Officials Prepare For Criminal Justice Reforms | WAMC

Albany County Officials Prepare For Criminal Justice Reforms

Dec 23, 2019

On January 1st, sweeping reforms to New York’s criminal justice system will go into effect. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard takes a look at how law enforcement agencies in Albany County are preparing for the changes…

For the last several weeks, law enforcement agencies have continued to speak out against reforms passed in the state budget that will go into effect in the New Year. Among the changes are the elimination of cash bail for dozens of offenses and a new pre-trial discovery process.

Albany County District Attorney David Soares hosted a group of Capital Region reporters at the county judicial building last week…

“For the better part of the last six months, we have been feverishly reorganizing, restructuring, digitizing…”

Just a few weeks earlier in the same room, a cadre of police chiefs and district attorneys held a press conference taking issue with the reforms. Soares, a Democrat, says he prefers to call them reimaginings but is looking forward, not backward.

Physical changes have been made to the office itself. Assistant District Attorney David Rossi led reporters through a room that was previously used for gathering testimony. Staff members were clicking away at computer screens. Cardboard boxes filled with paper documents were stacked against the wall. Everything is being digitized.

“We have higher-speed scanners in here and we’re going to be looking at repurposing this whole space, and hopefully the staff that we are getting – the legislature, hopefully we are getting some more staff – that’s basically what they’re going to be doing, it’s going to be like a Kinko’s in here, if you remember what Kinko’s was,” said Rossi.

New discovery laws will provide a 15-day window for police and prosecutors to review evidence before sharing it with the defense. But Soares sees that window as half that time – seven-and-a-half days for police, seven-and-a-half days for his office.

Digitizing makes sending information quicker, but the process can be tedious. There’s also a need for more training among staff. Soares says he has requested from county lawmakers a boost in staff to comply with all the tenets of the reforms, but there’s still a shortage.

“Thirty-five positions is what we sought for our office to be in compliance with the new legislation. We’ve received nine in our budget. Nine that we will have to hire at the beginning of the year,” said Soares.

A drain on staff resources has been a complaint among police departments, too. Commander Adam Hornick is with the Bethlehem Police Department.

“We’ve been reassigning duties, reassigning additional work, extra work to people. It’s resulted in officers and supervisors being pulled off the road for potions of their shift to build the discovery files so we can be in compliance with this,” said Hornick.

Hornick says the amount of paperwork under the new laws will increase tenfold.

The Bethlehem Police Department has prepared by working to adopt the new guidelines early. A test period with the incoming discovery laws for 10 cases was held in September. 

“And once that pilot was done, then we reevaluated it, evaluated what had happened, made some changes to it, and our department went live with the new discovery laws in December of this year,” said Hornick.

Many officials in upstate New York agree that some bail reform is needed. But there are concerns about the elimination of bail for certain offenses.

Several have pointed out that most county governments do not fund or have adequate pre-trial services like New York City. 

Khalil Cumberbatch, Chief Strategist of New Yorkers United for Justice, defended the reforms at a press conference earlier this month. He addressed the complaints from law enforcement regarding a lack of state funding.

“If the question would be, ‘If you got the money, if you said that these reforms in your county would cost you blank dollars to scale up, scale out, do whatever you need to do to get ready, would these reforms be a threat to public safety?’ And I would dare to say that many of them would probably say ‘no.’”

Though Republicans and several upstate Democrats in the state legislature called for weeks for a special session to address concerns with the new laws, legislative leaders in the Assembly and Senate have not signaled that they would call lawmakers back to Albany.

With the next legislative session set to begin January 8th, Soares says he and his colleagues will continue to reach out to lawmakers to make adjustments to the criminal justice reforms a priority.

“We’re trying to identify reasonable people to have reasonable discussions with about some of these issues, and we do believe that this was rushed," said Soares.