BATH | The end of 2019 has been dominated by discussions of state bail reforms that will lead to more of those accused of crimes being released instead of held in jail.
But that was only the most recently implemented of several state-mandated changes to criminal justice rules and procedures that have driven conversations and costs for Steuben County officials throughout the year.
The county Legislature began the year by approving in January the creation of a centralized arraignment court in Bath and the hiring of several additional staff to allow it to operate.
Centralized arraignment was the solution of Steuben and several other upstate counties to a problem presented by a lawsuit filed against the state alleging criminal defendants weren’t receiving sufficient legal representation.
Under the settlement reached by the state, everyone accused of a crime must have an attorney present at every court appearance -- including arraignment, an initial hearing in which a person is formally notified of the charges against them and has the opportunity to enter a guilty or not guilty plea (though a plea can be deferred to a later appearance).
It’s a process which was previously often handled without a public defender present.
Given the number of town and village courts around the county, and the county’s size, officials decided it would be impossible for the Public Defender’s Office to be present at each local arraignment -- so instead defendants in most of the county are now transported to Bath for arraignment.
That has meant using Sheriff’s deputies to transport defendants, having a holding area in place separate from the county jail (for legal reasons), and additional staff in the Public Defender’s Office to ensure that every arraignment can be attended -- which has turned out to be significantly more cases, at higher cost, than state officials projected, according to District Attorney Brooks Baker.
The District Attorney’s Office also added staff to make sure they could be present at all arraignments -- though the DA already needed additional attorneys to deal with another change in state law.
Late last year, a new state law raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 17 years old, and again in October 2019 to 18 years old.
That meant a large number of young people who might have gone into the adult criminal justice system were diverted to Family Court instead -- it also meant special procedures to determine when that wouldn’t happen, such as in the case of violent crimes.
That’s increased the burden both on the regular court system and the Family Court system, as well as on the County Attorney’s Office tasked with handling the transition -- all at a cost of manpower, resources and money.
At the end of the year, changes introduced by state lawmakers in April are going into effect, bringing more costs.
That includes the bail reform issue that’s been in the news for the last couple of months, as law enforcement argues it presents a threat to public safety.
They say releasing most defendants rather than holding them in jail unless they can pay cash bail will mean more criminals on the street.
To its credit, the county’s Public Safety and Corrections Committee recently allowed Public Defender Shawn Sauro an opportunity to make the case in favor of bail reform.
He noted that, under the basic principles of America’s system of justice, releasing defendants prior to trial can’t be viewed as putting criminals back on the street -- because they must be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Sauro also told legislators that holding defendants in jail can devastate their lives in a way that makes it very difficult to return to normal life -- a few days in jail, he said, will often mean losing a job, insurance coverage, social connections and event custody of a child.
That, along with the strong correlation between crime and substance abuse, only increases the chance that a person will become a lifelong participant in the criminal justice system, according to Sauro.
He also noted that defendants who are not incarcerated are better able to work together with their attorney to participate in their own defense -- something that’s also considered their right under the law.
Less remarked upon, but more burdensome and costly for prosecutors and public defenders alike, is the state mandated change to what’s called ‘discovery.’
That’s the process by which a defendant in a criminal case is provided with the evidence that prosecutors intend to use against them so they have an opportunity to present a defense.
Prior to the change in state law, that full documentation was often only given to defendants and their attorneys at some point prior to trial.
The new rules require a full disclosure of the available information within just 15 days -- that’s a large amount of paperwork for prosecutors to put together and hand over in a short time span, and again requires additional staff and funding for computer systems to streamline the process.
Public defenders then have to be able to meaningfully process all those documents so they can provide their clients with guidance and help them make informed decisions.
The changes to discovery come into full effect as 2020 begins, and Steuben County officials haven’t yet had the opportunity to gauge whether they’ve correctly anticipated the workload they’re facing.