New Year Will Bring Criminal Justice Reform to New York

Confetti falls during a New Year’s celebration in New York’s Times Square on Jan. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger, File)

(CN) – Starting New Year’s Day 2020, New York State’s criminal justice system will look a little different.

“It is change, and change is often opposed by the system,” Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a press conference this month. “This change has been done by other states … The wheels did not fall off the car.”

Three major and controversial changes are on the docket for New Yorkers beginning Jan. 1, 2020: bail, speedy trial and discovery reform.

The most visible revision Cuomo signed into law is the bail reform program that slashes the state’s cash-bail requirement in about 90% of cases, excluding certain violent felonies like domestic or sex abuse. Instead of paying to walk free, the accused will merely receive an appearance ticket.

Judges will have to order the least restrictive conditions necessary, as long as defendants continue to come to court. They can only take risk of flight into consideration and not how dangerous they think the defendant might be.

“District attorneys do not believe that those accused of crimes should be held in jail simply because they cannot afford bail. However, judges should have the discretion to hold repeat offenders, those who may flee our jurisdiction or those who are a danger to public safety. Without giving judges the ability to evaluate the dangerousness of a defendant, we have the potential to release people back into our communities who may reoffend within days or even hours,” Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said in a statement Tuesday. Hoovler also called for more money from state lawmakers for pretrial services.

The legislation, passed in April by a newly elected Democratic majority in the Legislature, has been contested by law enforcement officers as well as some lawmakers, mayors and prosecutors.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed enthusiasm for the new state plans in a statement Monday.

“The end of this decade marks a new dawn for justice in New York,” she wrote. “While the bail, discovery and speedy trial reforms are major steps toward justice, New York still has a lot of work to do.”

She called for an overhaul of the parole system, an end to solitary confinement and the legalization of marijuana.

The New York Conference of Mayors is one group not entirely happy with the new state plans.

“NYCOM strongly objects to the discovery portion of New York’s new criminal justice reforms,” the group’s executive director, Peter Baynes, said in a statement Monday. “The dramatic acceleration in the timing of discovery and the expansion of the matters to which it applies will have significant cost and compliance implications for cities and villages with police departments, courts and/or code enforcement departments.”

He said that in the village of Freeport alone, expenses for the new discovery requirements would run an extra $2.3 million. Starting in January 2020, prosecutors will have to turn over their evidence to the defense 15 days after an indictment rather than waiting until the last minute before trial, as they were able to do under discovery laws that had been in place for decades.

The mayors’ group does support amendments that would provide more financial support to jurisdictions to help them handle the cost of the new mandates, as well as some adjustments to the discovery process.

Legislators also reformed the state’s speedy-trial provisions by enacting a law to prevent prosecutors from unnecessarily delaying proceedings.

New York is not the first state to make big changes. New Jersey, California, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Alaska have all slashed cash bail requirements. New Jersey has seen drops in both arrests and crime since implementing the policy.

Poor black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by the cash bail system, while wealthier people accused of crimes can afford to await trial in home confinement or under other restrictions.

One alternative is supervised release, which in New York City assigns biweekly check-ins to those awaiting trial and provides phone call reminders to appear in court, and currently serves mostly those accused of more minor offenses like theft. That system in New York City alone, however, could see three to four times as many people with the new requirements in 2020, and is more sophisticated and well-funded than in other parts of the state.

Cuomo also obtained funding in the 2020 budget for efforts to reduce the use of solitary confinement. The budget likewise reduces maximum misdemeanor sentences and requires more reporting by law enforcement agencies on the use of force.

New York City this year also successfully passed a plan to shut down the Rikers Island jail complex and divide its population among four new smaller, borough-based jails.

Members of Congress of both parties from New York including Elise Stefanik, a Republican, and Max Rose, a Democrat, have opposed the state legislation.

Some stakeholders, including State Senator Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, have expressed concern that prosecutors will try other methods to keep those accused from walking free, such as inflating the charges against them. He introduced a bill to collect data on pretrial proceedings, but it did not pass.

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