A series of criminal justice reforms set to take effect on January 1st in New York will revise the bail and discovery process. Law enforcement officials across the state have been speaking out against the reforms. In New York’s North Country, law enforcement officials and the District Attorneys from Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties recently gathered in Plattsburgh to discuss how the measures could negatively impact the North Country.
The changes will eliminate pretrial detention and cash bail, reduce some jail sentences, and require an accelerated schedule for prosecutors to provide evidence to defending attorneys.
Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie, a Democrat, says he doesn’t oppose bail reforms, but says the changes amount to an unjust, unfair and unfunded mandate. “The bail reform changes will have a large impact on our local communities in many different ways. Bail reform removes the local and county judges' discretion to consider whether the defendant should be held pending prosecution or not. Pretrial release services with the probation departments will be greatly impacted; impacted defendants who need immediate drug or mental health counseling. These laws will impact the people's ability to be ready for trial. Our offices are now expected to do 90 to 95% more work with the same staffing as we have today and in the same budget that we have today.”
Republican Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague says she has been a prosecutor for 22 years and never opposed previous reforms. “All we're asking is for compromises. Let's back up. When this was drafted, the DA's, law enforcement that are here today were never asked to sit at that table. Two areas have been completely changed our bail and discovery. Bail seems to be one of the most notable because there's this list of qualifying offenses that if you're charged with the judge cannot set bail. And one of those that is very close to my heart is the manslaughter. A year ago my brother was shot and killed and had that individual been charged with manslaughter on the onset he would have went home that night. Burglary in the second degree. Someone breaks into your home. They are given an appearance ticket and they get to go home. How safe will you feel? That's the reality come January 1st.”
The DA’s and law enforcement officials say there is no budget to allow them to implement the reforms locally and that will put a strain on offices and budgets. Plattsburgh Police Chief Levi Ritter cited Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State justice agenda to end cash bail, reduce people held pretrial, assure due process for individuals, and mandate that police issue appearance tickets instead of making arrests in low level cases. Ritter says he must shift an officer off the street to a desk to comply with such mandates. “And only exposes how careless this legislation was crafted by passing it through a budget bill, instead of through the various committees that should have studied the ramifications of these mandates. It would appear that the governor would have us believe that it costs nothing to advance historic criminal justice reform. A criminal justice system that is in need of reform does not become reformed merely by mandating unfunded additional work on the part of every law enforcement stakeholder, including the victims of crime.”
114th District Republican Assemblyman Dan Stec said there is bipartisan opposition from the region’s representatives and from statewide law enforcement representatives. “It should shock all of us that we were going to make significant changes without consulting the people that are charged with enforcing the law and getting us to justice. It is a slap in the face to victims. It is a slap in the face to the taxpayer. And I don't know what constituency we're chasing with legislation like this but it isn't the constituents that I represent.”
Chief Ritter acknowledged that law enforcement across the state has been stepping up to oppose the new Bail and Discovery Reform laws. “None of these press conferences you see taking place throughout the state are coordinated. We are simply people that have sworn to protect the innocent, and we cannot in good conscience go further without sounding the alarm. There are some things that an overburdened criminal justice system can absorb. These unfunded social justice reforms, while they have merit will tax the criminal justice system to the point of breaking. We're sending a clear message: changes need to be made or everyone will suffer the consequences when the criminal justice system breaks.”
Last week, Republican state Senator James Tedisco and Democratic Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara of the Capital Region introduced legislation to amend the law.