OSWEGO — County law enforcement officials are joining a chorus of peer agencies imploring to the New York State Legislature to ease the onset of criminal justice reforms that were passed by the Democratic-led State Senate and Assembly earlier this year.
New regulations amounting to an overhaul of municipal criminal court systems across the state are set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020. Proponents in Albany say reforms to the laws governing evidence disclosure, bail, speedy trials are said to make for a “fairer, safer and more just system for all New Yorkers” and advance practices that have decreased the prison population in the last eight years of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure. Since the start of Cuomo’s first term in 2011, the prison population decreased from 56,419 to 46,973.
Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oakes said some aspects of the new legislation “promote justice,” but ultimately the reforms will “undermine public safety and dramatically tilt the court system in favor of defendants rather than victims.” He said the new requirements ask too much of his office, already fighting to retain its staff of Assistant District Attorneys.
The new law will require all defendants to be provided an attorney at arraignment; prosecutors and defendants must officially disclose all information for every case within 15 days of arraignment; cash bail will be eliminated for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies; felony cases will have to be indicted in 90 days and presented to the Grand Jury.
At a hearing for the State Senate Codes Committee in September, Oakes joined District Attorney Patrick Swanson of Chautauqua County and a bipartisan coalition of district attorneys across the state to plea for a more gradual transition process and more financial support. Chautauqua and Oswego counties led the state in the number of cases per attorney at 299 and 289, respectively, according to the state’s Unified Court System.
“These laws will not succeed in creating a better criminal justice system in New York unless we all understand all of the impacts these laws will have...and most importantly we cannot skimp on funding,” David Hoovler, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said in a prepared statement to the committee. “We are redefining the criminal justice system in our state and that deserves as much attention and resources as possible.”
Oakes said the most drastic changes will be made in the area of discovery, the process of disclosing all information relevant to a case. Under present law, defendants are only entitled to certain evidence that must be specifically requested in a written demand by the defendant. From traffic tickets to petite larceny, DA staff members will be required to formally provide discovery, including warrants, evidence and transcripts, within 15 days of arraignment.
New regulations prohibit prosecutors from conditioning any plea offer upon defendants if they waive discovery rights.
“We’re going to have to prioritize vehicle and traffic tickets. It’s going to be reducing everything to a parking ticket and hope they plea because there’s no way we can collect the thousands of traffic tickets,” Oakes told county Legislators at a Public Safety Committee meeting Nov. 4. “We’re going to have to adapt. It’s going to take some time.”
Insufficient state funding to compensate for “overwhelming and unmanageable” workload creates a vicious cycle of departures form the DA’s office, Oakes said. One Assistant District Attorneys, whose name could not be disclosed, jumped ship because of the workload, leaving the remaining members of his team to pick up the slack.
“I’ve got to try to convince people with the salary they're earning to do that much more work. It got to the point last summer where I told my ADA’s I need you to do more, and they told me point blank I don’t want to do more,” he said. “And they proved it. One week later they walked out the damn door.”
In an effort to eliminate cash bail, the new legislation will reduce the court’s discretion to set bail and arraign a defendant, according to Oakes. The statute will require the court to specifically articulate the reasoning for setting bail and remanding the defendant. If the court remands a defendant after arraignment, the defendant is entitled to have the court’s decision reviewed and ask for a hearing.
For felony defendants who remain in jail before trial, many of whom are charged with violent offenses since the new bail statue largely limits pretrial detention to shoe charged with a violent crime, the new statue will require the DA’s office to indict cases within 90 days, instead of six months as in the current law.
“Indicting cases quickly is a recipe for having people overcharged and locking both sides in a position that is untenable because of plea bargaining restrictions,” Oakes said.
Failing to meet that time frame means the court will release the defendants on modified bail or upon their own recognizance, giving defendants the chance to flee the jurisdiction and commit more crimes.
“We have women, children and men who are 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 to the house and hurt them or pursue them,” Oakes told the state Senate’s Code Committee in September. “That is the cost of what we’re talking about.”