Defendants have right to speedy trial and liberty

BATH | Steuben County’s Public Defender made his case to legislators Monday during discussions of state criminal justice reforms in a meeting of the county’s Public Safety and Corrections Committee.


Public Defender Shawn Sauro said while he doesn’t agree with all the changes, the state’s new laws, which focus on protecting the rights of criminal defendants, serve two purposes: respecting rights under the constitution, and ultimately improving public safety.


“It’s the right to a fair and speedy trial, and it’s the right to liberty,” Sauro said. “Across the state, people languished in jail days, weeks, months, because they were just flat-out too poor to get bail. It’s not just downstate, it’s upstate, too. For a lot of these people, if you set bail at $100, it might as well be $1 million.


“Although you are innocent until proven guilty, you will sit in jail while you protest. [However], if you have the money to defend yourself, you can do so from a position of freedom.”


Legislator Steven Maio of Corning said people often don’t understand who is actually in the county jail, which is largely used for pretrial detention.


“The jail is not filled with people who have been convicted of crimes,” Maio said. “The jail right now is filled with people who have not been convicted of a crime.”


Sauro told legislators there are multiple studies that show even short stays in jail can have major effects on a person’s likelihood to return to jail or prison in the future.


“If you aren’t indigent when you go to jail, you likely are when you leave,” he said.


He said that’s because even a few days incarcerated often means losing your job, losing family and social connections, losing your housing or even losing custody of a child. Those are the obligations and connections that often keep people out of the criminal justice system.


Sauro said other states have already implemented similar changes to their bail systems without experiencing major problems. He also said in areas such as Brooklyn with community bail funds, where groups pay bail for those awaiting trial, more than 95 percent of those people return for court appearances.


“It’s not going to be ‘The Purge,’” he said, referring to a series of recent horror films in which law enforcement is temporarily suspended and mayhem ensues.


The county will conduct reviews of cases throughout December to determine which inmates are eligible for release, Sauro noted. There won’t be a mass exodus from the county jail on Jan. 1.


Sauro, speaking to The Leader following the meeting, noted that a significant number of defendants in the county end up serving their sentence before being convicted of a crime.


People frequently spend weeks or months in jail awaiting trial, and then jump at the chance to plead guilty in exchange for being sentenced to “time served,” Sauro said, because it allows them to be released.


Choosing to go to trial will prolong a defendant’s time in jail -- unless they can afford bail.


He noted that defendants who are free on bail -- currently those with higher incomes -- are more able to contribute to their own defense, and better able to communicate with their attorney.


He said there are some categories of crimes eligible for release without bail that he finds questionable.


Prosecutors and other law enforcement officials have been circulating a list of criminal charges eligible for release without bail under the new law, which includes some assault and even homicide charges.


Sauro said judges are still able to exercise their own discretion in determining whether to release a defendant, though the law says prior convictions can’t be considered.