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Niagara County wrangling with different way of life under new criminal justice reform laws

Nick Lippa

Across New York, the criminal justice system is grappling with a series of legal changes that are starting to fall into place and making some basic alterations in the way the state's courts work.

The changes do everything from doing away with bail to a different set of rules for those under the age of 18, which recently took effect. Many of the changes are having major impacts in New York City's enormous criminal justice and jail system. In many more sparsely populated counties, it can be hard to manage.

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek said she persuaded the county legislature to raise her budget $200,000 to let her hire an IT person and two other staff members to deal with new discovery issues.

"We received no money, particularly in the new bail rules. The bail rules and the discovery rules that we are facing January 1, 2020, not one dime is coming from the state," Wojtaszek said. "It all has to be asked for and I asked well over $200,000 extra this year."

Wojtaszek said the bail alteration has little impact because her office has a "no jail, no bail policy." She asks for bail only for crimes that require jail time.

"The majority of cases will be cases that we're going to have released. The majority of our cases, thankfully, are non-violent crimes and misdemeanors and you can't even ask for bail in those circumstances unless there's a history of bench warrants," she said.

Wojtaszek said there is a major problem in the no bail policy, since many domestic violence cases don't involve criminal charges that carry jail time. So the alleged perpetrator might be immediately released and potentially harm the spouse or partner, meaning an order of protection might not carry much weight.

"That woman gets the courage to finally call the police because things have gone too far and all she got was an order of protection," the DA said. "There is no ability in the law for the judge on a misdemeanor DV case to set bail, even if they have concerns there they are going to go right back and commit further harm."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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