New York State lawmakers have passed a long-fought-for set of reforms to the criminal justice system. The sweeping package of laws, which take effect on Jan. 1, 2020, changes the courts’ system of bail and discovery and is part of an effort to ensure speedier and fairer trials. The changes include:
- The number of offenses for which one can be arrested and held in custody by police will be sharply reduced. Starting next year, police can only arrest individuals accused of class D felonies or worse. Exceptions would be made for violent crimes, sex crimes, or those for which a court might issue a protective order or revoke a driver’s license. For all other crimes, police would be limited to issuing a desk appearance ticket (DAT).
- Bail will not be required for those charged with most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. However, a person can be held pending bail if he/she commits certain crimes (e.g. violent or sexual crimes, as well as terrorism or conspiracy) or if he/she persistently and willfully misses appearance dates, among other reasons. In addition, in cases where bail can be set, the judges must issue easier-to-pay forms of bail, such as unsecured or partially secured bonds.
- For-profit entities will be barred from providing pretrial services or supervision. Such services must instead be run by either a non-profit entity or directly by the government. In addition, the new laws prohibit the defendant from bearing these costs.
- Controls and oversight of risk assessments will be put in place to monitor for and eliminate potential bias.
- Courts will be required to send defendants court appearance reminders. These can be in the form of text messages, calls, emails and/or written letter notifications. Experts say that sending reminders reduces the number of missed court dates. In addition, courts must wait 48 hours before issuing a bench warrant for failure to appear. Further, the defendant (and/or the defendant’s attorney) must be notified in advance that the issuance of such a warrant is imminent.
- Prosecutors will be required to turn over any and all evidence within 15 days of arraignment. A possible 30-day extension can be filed in some cases. In addition, prosecutors must give the defendant and/or his/her attorney full discovery before withdrawing a plea deal.
While many criminal justice reform advocates hail the new laws as steps in the right direction, many District Attorneys and police officers throughout the state have expressed strong concerns about the changes and what it will mean to their offices.
“We have internal video, we have body cameras, we have cameras outside of the department, we have audio recordings of phone and radio transmissions,” said Hudson Police Chief L. Edward Moore. “This is a lot of data to store. Not only do we have to have long-term storage, we have to have it ready, prepared and organized to the district attorney and to the defense within 15 days.”
Eugene Keeler, a former Columbia County DA who is running again for the position admits that the new rules will be difficult at first. “It is going to be very tough for any prosecutor in the state of New York to fulfill the requirements,” he said. “They don’t have control over the police and investigators in every department.”
However, Keeler added that the rules are a response to years of prosecutors playing games and delaying the release of evidence to the detriment of the defendants, and insists those prosecutors are getting their “just desserts.”