Back in November, before new bail and discovery reforms took effect, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo mocked Albany County District Attorney David Soares for expressing concerns about the costs and implementation of those reforms.
“Another day, another excuse. … His math and his convictions are both questionable,” the spokesman told the Times Union.
Now that both reforms have been implemented and now that reality has replaced aspiration, the only thing that seems questionable is why the warnings of prosecutors and other law enforcement officials weren’t heeded when the legislation was being prepared. And these days the only excuses seem to be coming from reformers who can’t quite seem to figure out how things could have gone awry so quickly.
We’ve detailed the problems with the bail reform proposals in the past and suggested potential solutions.
Now we turn to discovery reform — designed to speed up and increase the amount of information made available to criminal defendants, and to expedite disposition of their cases.
Like the reforms to the cash bail system, discovery reform was long overdue because it was depriving defendants, many of them minorities and the indigent, of the ability to properly defend themselves.
The result of not having timely information about their cases resulted in suspects being compelled to take plea bargains when perhaps the evidence would have supported either acquittal or a lesser sentence.
It also resulted in them unduly serving time in jail awaiting disposition of their cases.
The law was an attempt to restore equality to an unfair system of justice. And we agree it is needed.
But like with the bail reforms, the Legislature didn’t put enough thought into the impact on the judicial system of expedited discovery before enacting the law, which requires that discovery materials be turned over to the defendant within 15 days of arraignment.
In an article in Wednesday’s Gazette, prosecutors and police from around the region articulated the special challenges they’re facing of having to comply with the new law — all of which were anticipated well before it went into effect.
Prosecutors have complained about the vast new workload that has resulted in adding hundreds of cases to their existing job in just the past few weeks. That’s placed an undue burden on staffs, forcing them to work weekends and nights just to keep up.
The new speed at which documents such as witness lists and police reports have to be turned over has also stressed out police and crime labs.
The only way for them to keep up will be to hire additional staff, the cost of which will have to be borne by local taxpayers, at least initially.
In addition to the cost of having to prepare and turn over the information, additional costs could come when cases that would normally be plea-bargained are taken to trial, resulting in greater expenses for prosecution and defense. And to speed up the transfer of huge files of evidence, some prosecutors have proposed purchasing better technology to assist them in sharing the documents with police.
As with the objections to bail reform, supporters of discovery reform say the complaints from law enforcement are being overblown in order to frighten the public into demanding changes and reversing the progress that’s been made.
But one can’t argue with the proven additional staff and financial burdens the law has already placed on law enforcement, just as one can’t argue that dangerous criminal suspects, including homicide suspects, who previously would have been held on bail have been released without bail.
Perhaps perception of the problem is a matter of degree, but problems still exist and they must be addressed.
The state has to provide some kind of direct financial support to localities to pay for these so-far unfunded mandates.
It’s unfair to burden local taxpayers with solving a problem that the state initiated and didn’t plan to pay for.
Counties and cities shouldn’t have to wait for anticipated savings from fewer incarcerations and emptier jails to pay for the new initiatives — savings that many in law enforcement are doubtful will ever fully materialize.
If those savings do come to bear as a result of these reforms, then the state can scale back on the financial support it provides and use those savings to offset the cost of the reforms.
But until then, the local governments that are bearing the cost of these reforms shouldn’t have to front the money in order to implement them.
Further, the state should look at whether the reforms themselves are creating more problems than they solve and actually hurting law enforcement’s effort to bring criminals to justice. And they should consider whether the new timetable for turning over documents is reasonable, or whether it can be modified to relieve the pressure on law enforcement while still guaranteeing defendants a speedy trial.
Complaining about a legitimate problem is not the same thing as making excuses.
And disregarding the seriousness of a problem is not the same as solving it.