Law enforcement officials across New York state today spoke out against criminal justice reforms set to take effect in January, as the call to bring lawmakers back to Albany for a special session grows louder.
Beginning January 1st, cash bail will be eliminated for hundreds of offenses, and new discovery and trial laws will also go into effect. The criminal justice reforms were passed as part of the state budget earlier this year.
But in recent weeks, some lawmakers, police chiefs, and other law enforcement personnel have been asking New York to delay the implementation, and for the legislature to reconvene to change the reforms they say are dangerous.
Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple spoke surrounded by a room full of law enforcement officials from across upstate – one of eight such press conferences held Thursday.
“This is going to jeopardize public safety, it’s short and sweet,” said Apple.
Apple said he’s concerned that under the changes, those with mental health or addiction issues released on their own recognizance will not be steered into public services. He said inmates inside the county jail today receive mental health crisis intervention services.
“Over a hundred people. That’s almost 25 percent of the jail inmates today,” said Apple.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney says the forthcoming discovery laws will have an adverse effect on gathering witness testimony.
He gave a hypothetical scenario of how the process of questioning a witness works now.
“We bring them in and we say, ‘Listen, we’re making you testify, we’re forcing you to testify. I know you don’t want to be here, but the good news is, you know, that the defendant is not going to know your identity unless this case comes to trial, because we don’t have to turn over your testimony until just before the start of trial. And the good news is only 5 percent of criminal cases are tried. That means that there’s a strong likelihood the defendant is not going to know your identity, so you don’t have to worry.’ Obviously, that script is out the window,” said Carney.
Carney explained that changes will require prosecutors to turn over names and contact information of witnesses, video and audio recordings including 911 calls, and other information within 15 days. He added that the state is not providing enough funding for law enforcement to support that effort.
The officials say the changes will require police departments like his to take cops off the beat to deal with monitoring video, make copies, and other tasks. Here’s Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins.
“We understand the philosophical reason the reforms and I think, to a large extent, we agree with those. But there are a number of unintended consequences we are starting to see. And particularly, here in Albany, one of the things I’m very concerned about is staffing,’ said Hawkins.
Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the New York State Division of the Budget, said there is money available to assist departments in implementing changes, saying in an email the state provides more than $300 million annually to support local governments and that “hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings” will come from a declining inmate population as a result of the reforms.
Apple acknowledged there would be a “small savings” in Albany County.
“But we still have a classification system, we’re still going to have inmates, we’re still going to need medical, we still need to feed the inmates, we still need to maintain the building. Some of that money can be shifted over, but nowhere near the fact that it’s going to cost Albany County’s taxpayers come January 1,” said Apple.
Criminal justice advocates have dismissed the concerns from law enforcement as fear-mongering.
Nicole Triplett, Policy Counsel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, referred to the calls to delay implementation as “a sad attempt to disrupt a pathway to justice.”
Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Governor Andrew Cuomo, pointed to pre-trial reforms made in neighboring New Jersey, saying in an emailed statement the state saw “no statistically significant changes regarding re-offenses or court appearances.” He added that the governor’s office “carefully considered the views of law enforcement” in developing the reforms.
Patrick Phelan, President of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, and chief of the Monroe County Town of Greece police department, disputes the notion that law enforcement was consulted before the reforms were adopted in the state budget.
“I have personally spoken to legislators and explained to them what’s in this law. And they say, ‘No, that’s not accurate.’ And I say, ‘Yes it is. You didn’t read it. You didn’t read what you voted for. You don’t know what you voted for.’ That’s the reality. That’s what happened here in New York. And as a result, they passed law that is wrong, that’s flawed, and it’s going to hurt people,” said Phelan.