Could New York's new bail reform bill compromise public safety?

Published: Dec. 3, 2019 at 3:51 PM EST
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Opponents say New York's new criminal justice reform bill puts an unfair burden on public safety at the local level. But defense lawyers say the change is long overdue. Our Kelly O'Brien has been digging deeper into what this means for local officials and North Country residents.

David Gervais is a criminal defense lawyer in Plattsburgh. He says until now, the system in New York favored the prosecution and put defendants at a disadvantage.

"There's been attempts at modifying bail and discovery roles in New York the last 40 years," Gervais said.

Now, new discovery rules require the prosecution to hand over their files to the defense 15 days after arrest.

"Almost going from dead last to almost in first position," Gervais said. "The prosecution has the burden of proof. They have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your client committed a crime. When you're provided with discovery it gives you a chance to see what they have for evidence."

Information that helps the defense decide whether to head to trial or settle out of court.

But police say the burden will fall on public safety offices like police departments and dispatch centers.

"Our department has had to spend thousands of dollars on electronics to comply with this legislation," Plattsburgh Police Chief Levi Ritter said.

Money generated from taxpayers and time spent gathering data instead of making new arrests.

"Having a police officer confined to a desk and a computer to meet the demand of an unfunded piece of legislation does not make a community safer. It only exposes how carelessly this legislation was crafted," Ritter said.

But Gervais says it shouldn't fall on the defendant if this work can't be completed.

"These are important constitutional rights and their applications shouldn't hinge on whether or not it's going to be easy or convenient for the prosecutors to apply to rules," he said.

And when it comes to bail, only defendants who are charged with the most serious offenses or are a risk for running away will have to pay it.

Critics say there will be more no-shows.

Gervais says defendants shouldn't sit in jail for months just because they can't afford the bail.

"His neighbor could be charged with the exact same thing but he happens to have $500 laying around and he can post bail. To me, that doesn't sound right. That doesn't seem like it's the proper way to do things," Gervais said.

North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik is coming out against the new Criminal Justice Reform Bill.

In a letter to the governor, Stefanik, R-New York, wrote, "After hearing from multiple district attorneys from across the state and many local elected officials, I urge Governor Cuomo to put forward reforms to be considered immediately in this upcoming legislative session... It is imperative that we work to find comprehensive solutions to criminal justice reform that keep our communities safe and keep the burden off local taxpayers."

Bail reform was passed in 2018 to keep low-level offenders out of jail pending trial, but advocates say it didn't go far enough. In October, the ACLU proposed a series of criminal justice reforms including the elimination of the cash bail system.

Vermont lawmakers have expressed interest in a law like New York, where defendants are only held if they pose a danger to the community or are a risk to flee.

New Hampshire made a change to their bail reform this year-- defendants can be released pretrial and judges are to consider the defendant's financial state before setting bail.