To the editor,
The local press has described the difficulties and costs Oswego County faces with New York’s 2019 Criminal Justice Reform Act. Recent news articles by Justin Henry and an earlier opinion piece by Assemblyman Will Barclay mention the key reform goals of the new law, but then dwell almost exclusively on everything that’s seen as wrong with it. The articles make clear that real procedural changes are mandated. But the articles leave me with questions that I hope future articles on this new law will address.
Barclay wrote that the new law’s “so-called reform went too far and completely removed judges’ discretion to set bail in cases where defendants who committed serious crimes are considered a flight risk.”
Oswego’s District Attorney Oakes echoes this and is quoted as saying “We have . . . victims of sex abuse and domestic violence that are facing the risk of having their abuser be released from jail so they can go back . . . and hurt them . . ..”
Sheriff Hilton says all cases involving drugs that need to be sent to a crime lab will be “ ‘impossible to successfully prosecute,’ . . . since the forensic tests take six months.”
The new law is supposed to save money by reducing our jail population through its bail reforms, but instead, we’re told, our county will see huge increases in costs.
Unfunded mandates are a perennial problem that I don’t want to minimize, but these articles are telling an incomplete story. Have the state Legislature and the governor really created an impossible and costly legal predicament with scant attention to needed criminal justice reform?
Questions raised by these articles include:
1. How are other New York counties adjusting to this new law? Are counties like Onondaga, which seems to have already centralized its arraignment part, adjusting any better?
2. How clear and important are the reforms addressed in this law? How often have area judges set cash bail that’s been impossible to pay? How has jailing pre-trial defendants generated unrelated problems for them/their families?
3. Should news articles develop points made by interviewees when the issues could use amplification? For example, have judges’ discretion in setting bail really been “completely removed?” I’ve read that under the new law, given a serious risk to public safety & fear of flight, judges will be able to set restrictive conditions such as electronic monitoring in certain conditions. I’ve also read that judges will be able to impose money bail for serious cases, including domestic violence and sexual offences. I’ve read both that a judge can’t consider a misdemeanor defendant’s violent past and that a judge can consider the past when there’s been a conviction of a violent felony in the past five years.
I look forward to a fuller explanation of how this new law will affect all stakeholders in Oswego County. The law may be changing too many elements too quickly, but making the system more fair, efficient, and coordinated with other community services is a worthy goal.