Cops, prosecutors ask state lawmakers to re-examine pending criminal justice reforms

Legislative Gazette photo by Aidan O’Shea
Town of Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan speaks at a press conference of prosecutors and other law enforcement officials in Albany on Thursday asking state legislators to reconsider some of the the criminal justice reforms they passed earlier this year that are set to go into effect January 1, 2020. Prosecutors are most concerned about the elimination of bail for many offenders as well as the costs of complying with other new regulations in the discovery process.

At the Albany County Court building on Thursday, dozens of sheriffs, deputies, police chiefs, district attorneys, police unions and concerned citizens called on state legislators to reconsider the repercussions of this year’s controversial criminal justice reforms, set to take effect this January 1st.

Under these new reforms, more than 400 crimes have been added to a list that Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple calls “a catch and release scenario.”

The reforms also amend New York state’s discovery laws, now requiring prosecutors to disclose all evidence against the accused — such as police reports, radio transmissions, body-worn and dash-cam video and lab results — within 15 days of the arrest, as well as providing the defense attorneys personal information about accusers and potential witnesses.

The law also creates a statutory right for the accused to visit a crime scene, even if it is a private home.

Police and other local officials held eight news conferences across New York on Thursday morning to make it clear why they oppose the upcoming criminal justice reforms: bail reform will not allow judges to consider a defendant’s potential danger to the community, the new regulations will be costly to local governments, and the reforms were passed during the state budget process without consulting the law enforcement community.

“I’m confident there is no one here present that doesn’t believe in bail reform,” Apple told the crowd gathered at the county court. “We are just asking the state for a slowdown, and to let us have a seat at the table.”

Under the new laws, more than 90 percent of those apprehended for non-violent crimes will be released without bail. Examples of crimes that will now warrant immediate release include, but are not limited to, possession of child pornography, home burgleries, reckless endangerment, vandalism, planning but not acting upon a school shooting, dropping rocks or other objects onto an expressway, and orchestrating Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemes.

Under the new reforms, 90 inmates in Albany County alone will be released on January 1, according to Sheriff Apple.

“It’s the illusion of public safety, without the reality,” said Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney.

The police and prosecutors are also angry that these reforms were passed as part of the state budget process without any consultation from law enforcement. Adding to their concern, they say the state budget failed to allocate any funds to ensure adequate pretrial alternatives to incarceration, leaving all the financial burden of the transition and implementation of the reforms to the counties.

On average, the cost of implementing these reforms at the county level will be $100 million.

Law enforcement officials noted at the press conference that modern investigations and prosecutions are labor intensive, requiring a comprehensive review of body cam and dash cam footage, with a separate review of audio recorded at the scene of a crime. This, in addition to hours of paperwork that not only requires money, but man hours.

Some police departments and district attorney’s offices say they may need to install fiber optic cables to transfer large electronic files in the shorter time frame now required.

Police did express concern over the current state of New York state’s bail system, acknowledging that many people remain in jail for low-level offenses simply because they cannot afford bail, but they say the new reforms simply goes too far.

Prosecutors are urging legislators to rethink the purpose of bail; not as a form of punishment or a presumption of guilt, but rather as insurance the accused will stand trial.

In virtually every other state that has cashless bail, critics of the new laws say, the judge is given more authority in determining flight risk, and imposing pretrial conditions accordingly. In New Jersey, for example, a judge can use objective discretion in determining whether the circumstances of the defendant may increase their flight risk, or make them a danger to public safety, and detain them accordingly.

Jefferson County District Attorney Kristyna Mills described a scenario in which someone from her county was killed by a drunk driver from Canada. Under the new bail reform laws, the defendant, despite being from another country, would have to be released without cash bail.

“The state legislators who voted for this law have made our community less safe and will cost property taxpayers more of their hard earned money,” said Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus, in a statement released by the coalition. “This legislation presents a clear danger to Orange County residents and people all over our state. I’ve called upon the state Legislature to return to Albany and delay the implementation of these laws.”