On Jan. 1, landmark criminal justice reforms went into effect in New York intended to continue a movement against mass incarceration.
Under one reform, people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent violent felonies are being released without cash bail, pending trials. Another reform requires prosecutors to disclose the evidence to the defense within 15 days of an indictment instead of shortly before trial.
As a New York Times editorial noted, “Similar reforms in New Jersey and elsewhere have reduced jail populations without endangering public safety.”
But prosecutors and police unions across the state have issued ominous warnings and more.
In July, Jed Painter, a Nassau County assistant district attorney, gave a 90-minute presentation that provided prosecutors tips on various ways to work with the police to subvert the spirit of the new law to hold more defendants on bail and to delay trials.
The concerns expressed by members of law enforcement are not completely unwarranted.
The changes in the new law do require safeguards to ensure defendants show up to court and don’t use the earlier notice of evidence to intimidate witnesses.
But local governments are capable of making those necessary changes and, if history is any guide, the concerns are overblown.
Just take a look at New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy under which police stopped pedestrians, an overwhelmingly large percentage of which were minority members.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly used to regularly issue dire warnings that its elimination would lead to an increase in crime.
Those predictions turned out to be totally without merit. Stops have plummeted after a court found them unconstitutional and a new mayor took office. And crime remains at record lows.
Bloomberg recently acknowledged this fact – on the eve of his bid for the Democratic nomination for president.
Pretrial detention is unfair, punishing poor people – often people of color – not because they are charged with committing a crime but because they were charged with committing a crime and don’t have the money for bail.
It is harmful. Studies show that those held before trial – often for weeks and months – are likelier to lose their jobs, their homes and custody of their children, according to The New York Times.
And pretrial detention is expensive. Pretrial detention costs the United States an estimated $14 billion each year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Also unfair was allowing prosecutors to wait until the eve of the trial to hand over witnesses’ names and statements and other crucial evidence to the defense.
New York was just one of 10 states to allow prosecutors to hold onto evidence that long. That did offer greater protection to witnesses, but it also put more pressure on defendants to plead guilty.
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said in an election debate that she did not agree with all the state provisions. But, she said, she was working on how to implement the state legislation.
This seems like the sensible and fair way forward.
DA officials, Singas said, have met with all town and village police departments in Nassau County and are working to update computer systems to prepare for the changes.
Not without the usual drama, County Executive Laura Curran and the Nassau Legislature have managed to come up with a budget for 2020 that addresses the changes required by the new law.
The budget includes $2.795 million to add 20 positions to the county district attorney’s office and 30 new jobs for the Probation Department to support the management of the new responsibilities and procedures resulting from the reforms.
Curran also let stand a proposal by county Republicans to create an Office of Crime Victims Advocate, with $890,000 in legal services and assistance to crime victims and witnesses.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature failed to include funding to help enact the reforms.
So the burden falls on local government. If the right changes are made, we will all benefit.