SYRACUSE — Calls to repeal the state’s criminal justice reforms, which went into effect about three weeks ago, are growing louder, and about a dozen local lawmakers, prosecutors and law enforcement officials gathered Friday in Syracuse to urge the roll back the changes and start from scratch.
With pro-reform advocates protesting outside, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, addressed a handful of reporters at the Onondaga County Courthouse, sharing stories of individuals impacted by the new bail laws and calling for an outright repeal of the recently enacted criminal justice reforms. Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oakes, Oswego County Sheriff Don Hilton, Oswego Police Chief Tory DeCaire and several other lawmakers, law enforcement professionals and prosecutors from nearby counties joined Barclay Friday afternoon.
State Republicans have been sounding the alarm on what they’re calling misguided changes that allow potentially dangerous criminals to avoid spending time in jail while awaiting sentencing, and local law enforcement officials — some Democrats — have entered the fray to speak out against the legislation.
Barclay, as assembly minority leader, is leading the charge for a repeal of the bail laws and a reexamination of the criminal justice reforms. Barclay said Friday the reforms, in place for only three weeks, have already “created a tremendous mess.”
“We’re calling for the law to be repealed immediately and then we can go back to the drawing board,” he said, adding there were issues with the previous system but lawmakers should often “use a scalpel but instead on this Albany used a chainsaw.”
The Democrat-controlled state Legislature approved the criminal justice reforms, which eliminate monetary bail and pretrial detention for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Democrats and proponents of the reforms said they would lower the risk of incarcerating innocent people, and improve public safety long-term.
The criminal justice reforms went into effect Jan. 1, and were largely presented as a way to improve bail procedures for low-level, non-violent offenders. Lawmakers and law enforcement officials Friday said one of the major issues is what is considered a non-violent offense under the law, including certain instances of manslaughter, burglary, robbery, stalking, assault and unlawful imprisonment.
Oakes said some of the offenses that are considered non-violent under law would be recognized “by any reasonable person” as violent, such as manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
“These are individuals who shouldn’t be on the street,” Oakes said, pointing to a recent case in Oswego County in which a man, presumably Mathew LeBoeuf, admitted to killing two individuals with a table leg. “If he had not plead on Jan. 2 we would have been required to release him into the community.”
The reforms were modeled after similar reforms in New Jersey and other states, but opponents of the reforms say the New York version goes too far and puts the public at risk. Barclay said “dangerous criminals” are being released every day from police custody and putting New Yorkers at risk.
“It’s a law that went too far, too fast without proper consideration of the consequences,” Barclay said. “We’re not saying improvements can’t be made to the system, but because of the public safety issue we’re calling for this law to be repealed.”
Oakes said the bail reforms no longer allow the criminal justice system to consider the seriousness of the crime, strength of a case, a defendant’s ties to the community and other issues when setting bail. Oakes said discretion should be given back to the courts to make such decisions, and offered a quick fix to the problem.
“Within 48 hours of arrest the defendant would have a bail review in front of a superior court judge with an attorney present so that a higher level judge could review (bail) to make sure it’s appropriate,” Oakes said.
Oakes said individuals shouldn’t be held solely because they cannot afford bail, but noted local officials “are not arbitrarily locking people up.”
Hilton said there was a need for bail reform, but called the current setup “ill-conceived and poorly implemented. Hilton, along with several other officials, noted the reforms also could harm defendants who may be suffering from mental health or addiction and in need of help.
“It has resulted in harming the very people it was designed to protect,” Hilton said in a statement. “There is no longer an incentive for opioid-addicted individuals to voluntarily enter treatment programs.”
With bail reforms taking most of the attention, Oakes said there are a handful of other issues that are being overlooked, including onerous requirements on prosecutors to hand over all evidence to defense attorneys within 15 days. The discovery laws are nearly impossible to comply with in some cases, Oakes said, especially when evidence has to be analyzed by crime labs.
Oakes said there’s concern the time limit could cause law enforcement or prosecutors to make mistakes, and ultimately lead to cases being dismissed on technicalities. Oakes said he previously testified as a senate hearing and proposed a longer, perhaps 45- to 60-day timeline to hand over discovery materials.
DeCaire also expressed concern about the discovery law, saying it is hampering investigations and delaying needed arrests. He said carefully crafted reforms may be necessary, but the increased discovery demands and limited discretion on bail is “endangering our communities and putting the people we serve at risk.”
Convincing Democrats to revisit the issue would be an uphill battle, Barclay said, but expressed optimism the public is starting to take notice and could put pressure on lawmakers.
“We will continue to hammer the message to legislative leadership, the members of both chambers and to the executive office; these laws are dangerous and do not do what was advertised,” Barclay said. “These laws need to go back to the drawing board where they can be properly studied before anyone else gets harmed.”
Barclay said lawmakers must coordinate with police, prosecutors and judges to revisit the laws and improve the justice system.
“Too often we pass laws, the legislature and the governor, and we don’t hear from the professionals,” Barclay said. “We don’t hear from the men and women on the ground that can probably best advise us on these laws, and as a result we end up passing bad public policy.”