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Supporters of bail reform, discovery law changes rebut backlash to new laws

Eileen Buckley

Law enforcement groups have pushed back against criminal justice changes that take effect in January, including the end to most forms of cash bail. But the advocates who fought for the changes say they are long overdue and will restore fairness to the system.

Beginning in January, New York ends cash bail for all nonviolent crimes and will require that prosecutors tell people accused of crimes the details of all of the evidence they have against them within 15 days. 

Khalil Cumberbatch, with the advocacy group New Yorkers United for Justice, said the changes will go a long way toward restoring fairness to a system that treats low-income residents and people of color more harshly than wealthy or white New Yorkers. 

"We are excited to see these reforms go into place," Cumberbatch said.  

Cumberbatch said under current laws, those who can afford to post bail get to go home. Those who can't are jailed, sometimes for months or even years, before their case is heard in court. Often, when they do finally appear before a judge, they aren't told what evidence the prosecutor has against them until their trial begins.

Cumberbatch, himself a former inmate, said prosecutors have long used those rules to pressure defendants to agree to plead guilty to a lesser crime. 

"Most people will say to themselves, 'I'm going to take the plea because I don't know what they have against me,' " Cumberbatch said. "That's a very powerful leverage." 

But in recent weeks, prosecutors and law enforcement groups, including the New York State Sheriffs Association and the group for the state's district attorneys, say they are worried that they don't have the staff and technology needed to carry out the new laws. 

Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler, the head of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, last month laid out some of the obstacles he faces in implementing the changes. 

"In my county, we have almost 40 different law enforcement agencies, they all have different computer systems," said Hoovler. "There's no central link to the district attorney's office. We have courts that meet once a month."

Hoovler said it will cost an estimated $100 million for district attorneys statewide to hire more staff and replace antiquated software.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the changes into law, has already said he does not favor giving the district attorneys more money, and he said they can find the funds through other sources of state aid already allocated to counties.

Cumberbatch said that in the long run, the criminal justice system will save money. He said it's expensive to house and feed inmates, who now will not be detained for long periods because they could not meet a bail payment. And he said other states, including New Jersey and Texas, have enacted similar reforms with no major problems.  

With just over three weeks before the new laws take effect, it's unlikely that there will be any changes made. The Democratic leaders of the State Legislature, who back the new laws, said they need to be given a chance to work. 

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke after a planning meeting with his members earlier this week. 

"Doing the criminal justice reform was trying to reform a racist and classist system," Heastie said. 

There are currently no plans for a special session before the 2020 session begins Jan. 8, after the criminal justice law changes are due to take effect.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.