ELMIRA - A group of regional law enforcement officials gathered at the John C. Hazlett building in downtown Elmira Thursday morning calling for state lawmakers to reconsider the sweeping package of criminal justice reforms passed through the 2019-2020 state budget bill earlier this year.
The group, which included sheriffs, police, district attorneys, lawmakers and others, identified two provisions of Albany’s criminal justice reforms that worry the law enforcement community heading into the new year: the elimination of cash bail and the 15-day expedited delivery of discovery materials from the offices of district attorneys to a defendant’s counsel.
“We’re calling upon the governor and the legislature to immediately convene and suspend the effective date of these new laws for at least three months to give the criminal justice community and the public an opportunity to have effective input on needed changes on these misguided reforms,” said Schuyler County Sheriff William Yessman.
“This [conference] is to send a collaborative message to the governor and the legislature, asking them to reconsider implementing these laws, maybe give them a little more time and seek input from law enforcement,” said Chemung County Sheriff William Schrom.
The reforms were championed by criminal justice reform advocates and progressives in state government to address discrepancies between rich and poor defendants. While wealthy people and those with assets who are charged with a crime can afford to pay cash bail and be released until their court date, poor defendants who can’t afford bail often have to remain in jail while their case sits in legal purgatory.
The reforms were also designed to address overcrowding in New York jails.
But these reforms have proved unpopular with state law enforcement; Thursday’s conference coincided with hundreds of other law enforcement officials holding similar conferences across the state. The reforms, officials say, will make communities less safe and burden law enforcement with excessive administration, with lack of state funding to implement them.
The bail provisions eliminate cash bail and requires mandatory release for more than 400 misdemeanors and non-violent crimes, officials said. Beginning Jan. 1, 2020, those charged with these crimes will be released after processing and asked to appear in court at a later date.
Under the new laws, state judges won't be able to consider a defendant's risk to public safety and will have little leeway when assessing their flight risk, officials said.
“The reason that we’re all speaking out today, with a united voice, is what we fear will happen to the public safety of the citizens of the State of New York, across the board,” said Steuben County Sheriff Jim Allard.
Thursday’s conference also featured several district attorneys concerned with the 15-day expedited delivery of discovery law materials such as police reports, radio transmissions, dash-cam videos, and other data relevant to the prosecution.
Currently, a defendant's party can acquire this information when requested and when motions are filed in court, officials said. With the new laws, discovery information must automatically be released within 15 days of a defendant's arraignment.
The task to deliver that information to the defendant’s party within 15 days is immense, officials said. Chemung County District Attorney Weeden Wetmore said that under current conditions, it normally takes his office approximately 30-45 days to deliver that information.
“The resources we have now are going to be stretched to the limit,” said Wetmore.
The discovery materials provision also requires the release of victim and witness names and information pertinent to them, which officials said could open the door to witness intimidation and tampering.
Allard said the Steuben County Jail has already begun releasing inmates in preparation of the new laws in January. Allard said as of Thursday, the population of the jail is approximately 125 inmates, down from 205.
Allard said he anticipates the jail will release more inmates in the coming weeks.
"I'll be suprised if we don't go below 100 before Jan. 1," he said.