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Local opposition mounting to criminal justice reforms

Local opposition mounting to criminal justice reforms

Local opposition mounting to criminal justice reforms
State Sen. James Tedisco speaks at a press conference at his offices in Clifton Park.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

CLIFTON PARK — A widening coalition of Capital Region officials and law enforcement is pushing back against sweeping statewide criminal justice reforms scheduled to take effect next year. 

The new bail and discovery reforms scrap pre-trial detention and cash bail for misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases, and some violent felonies.

Reformers believe the new laws will create a fairer criminal justice system and cut down on low-income people held in jail while awaiting trial, resulting in mandatory release for approximately 80 to 90 percent of those cases. 

But state Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, is excoriating the reforms as a “get-out-of-jail-free card for criminals.” 

“They came with an agenda,” said Tedisco, who is co-sponsoring legislation with state Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, to seek a one-year moratorium on the new laws and call the state Legislature back for a special session to weigh amendments.

Law enforcement officials, prosecutors and Republican state lawmakers say they’re not against criminal justice reforms. But they contend the new laws, which take effect Jan. 1, were forged by a Democratic-controlled state Legislature without their input and will lead to emboldened criminals roaming the streets — including those accused of manslaughter, assault and sex crimes.

“We’re taking away the discretion of the judiciary and public safety is going to be compromised because of this,” Walsh said. “Some of the worst things in Albany are the things that were rushed through like this was." 

Tedisco and Walsh held a press conference on Tuesday to call for hearings to be held in all 10 regions of the state to hear from criminal justice experts and others, including prosecutors, law enforcement and victims’ advocates. 

Other lawmakers have called for all-out repeal, including state Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie.

“Bail reform that allows sex offenders and murderers out onto the streets, gutting of the criminal discovery process and unsustainable alterations to how our police officers protect us are not the way to ensure public safety,” Tague said in a statement. 

Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo predicted his already-stretched road patrol will spend more time trying to locate suspects who have skipped court appearances.

“Currently, I have close to 300 warrants looking for people,” Zurlo said. “I anticipate that to probably double or maybe triple. Right now our road patrol is maxed.”

Others said the laws roll back decades of progress for victims advocacy and leave people vulnerable, including domestic violence victims.

"It’s going to wreak havoc on the criminal justice system and re-victimize victims,” said Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino, who will host a town hall-style forum next week with his Montgomery County counterpart to discuss the new reforms. 

Tedisco and Walsh were joined on Tuesday by the parents of Chris Stewart, a Shenendahowa High School student who was killed by an impaired driver in 2012.

Regina and Michael Stewart said more time is needed to study possible ramifications, and they struggle to understand the rationale behind the changes. 

“Whenever you hear 'reform' these days, it just seems to be that proposed changes are changes that are going to benefit the offender, the person that broke the law,” Michael Stewart said. “It doesn’t seem like it's balancing with the innocent victim.”

The new laws also tighten the timeline for which prosecutors must provide materials to defense teams. 

District attorneys across the state must now comply with the new 15-day discovery window, during which they must turn over to the defense certain information in their possession, such as evidence. But prosecutors contend the compressed timeline will carry an increased workload without extra compensation from the state to pay for staffing and technology increases. 

“It’s a monumental task for our offices,” said Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen.

Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney supports the one-year moratorium. 

“Although we are planning for these changes, I question our ability to meet these new mandates with the resources and limited time left before they take effect,” Carney said in a statement.

Several groups that have spoken in favor of the reforms, including Citizens Action of New York, did not return requests for comment. 

CUOMO: FEARS OVERBLOWN

Despite the increasingly loud drumbeat from prosecutors, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he doesn’t support increasing funding levels. 

“Everybody says they always want more funding,” Cuomo told reporters last week. “This year funding is going to be very difficult. We have a big Medicaid problem. The answer to everyone’s problem is always more money. I think they’ve gotten additional funding and they’re getting additional funding. So no, I don’t think they need more funding.”

The Cuomo administration has said the elimination of cash bail will lead to a decline in jail populations, ideally freeing up funds that can be reallocated by local governments, savings that could reach in the hundreds of millions. 

Paired with declining crime rates, both New York City and upstate counties should see annual savings that grow "significantly" by 2026 if those trends continue, he said. 

The state Division of the Budget said $300 million has already been made available to support the implementation of reforms. 

“New York state is creating a more equitable justice system as we eliminate cash bail for minor offenses, speed the time to trial, transform the discovery process, raise the age of criminal responsibility, decriminalize marijuana and invest in indigent defense," said Freeman Klopott, a department spokesman. "There is no question resources are available for the implementation of these critical reforms as the state invests more than $300 million to support them and local governments will recognize hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings from a declining inmate population.”

Cuomo also batted away claims that the reforms would lead to more crime, noting a similar bill was passed in New Jersey and fears failed to materialize.

“It has worked very well,” Cuomo said. 

Tedisco acknowledged outright appeal is unlikely, but said he planned on leaning on lawmakers from downstate Senate districts that flipped to Democratic control last year and indicated he would make opposition to the reforms a central election year issue.

“I hate to see things done for political reasons, but sometimes you have to use any card that’s played,” Tedisco said.

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