HUDSON — Police and prosecutors in the Twin Counties are bracing for a sea change in policies in reaction to criminal justice reforms taking effect on Jan. 1.
Under new bail restrictions, judges will no longer be able to weigh the risk to public safety and order defendants jailed with bail unless they are charged with certain violent or sex felony charges. Instead, defendants will be issued appearance tickets in nearly all cases.
Dozens of offenses will no longer qualify for bail, such as aggravated vehicular homicide, failure to register as a sex offender, aggravated cruelty to animals, torturing and injuring animals, third- and fourth-degree arson, making a terroristic threat, second-degree manslaughter, criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds, to name a few.
It’s all part of sweeping criminal justice reform taking effect Jan. 1 passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of the state budget deal earlier this year. Prosecutors said, despite their pleas, a delay in the roll out of the new law does not seem likely.
Columbia and Greene County district attorneys are training hundreds of police officers to ensure a smooth transition after the laws take effect Jan. 1, 2020. The idea, they said, is to get police officers in the mindset before the rollout to ensure a seamless transition.
“The new laws will substantially change nearly every aspect of law enforcement work, from the first 911 calls through trials and appeals,” Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said. “It is a major challenge for us and cannot, and should not, be minimized.”
Greene County District Attorney Joseph Stanzione has serious reservations about bail reform, he said Friday.
“The theory behind bail is two-fold: to insure they return to court and to protect society from an individual accused of committing a serious offense,” Stanzione said. “These reforms are focusing on the rights of the accused rather than the safety and security of the community.”
Jail time can also have reformative effects on inmates, Stanzione said.
“I have parents call my office telling me, my child has a bad addiction and if he is released, he will overdose and die,” Stanzione said. “If the person is in jail for a period of time, even a week, they often decide, this is not the life I want and they would rather get into a program and straighten out.”
With 90 percent of crimes released on appearance tickets, police are concerned they might spend more time out on the road tracking down defendants. The Hudson City Court issued 270 bench warrants in 2018. On a randomly selected day, Jan. 1, 2018, there were 20 cases before the court in which 14 people failed to show.
Stanzione expects that police will spend more time searching for people who do not show up for court, he said.
“When we catch serious drug offenders on the Thruway who are facing many years in state prison for transporting drugs, they are not from this area,” Stanzione said. “They are passing by on the Thruway. We are not going to see them again.”
When the county has to extradite an offender from another state, it can cost $3,500 to $5,000 per case, Stanzione said.
Budgetary constraints may limit the number of extraditions the county can perform, he said.
“Some people may not be held accountable,” he said. “We just don’t have the resources [to hold them accountable].”
In Greene County, bail reform is expected to reduce the jail population by about a third, Stanzione said.
Friday’s inmate population was 37. Of those inmates, individuals charged with petty larceny, second-degree criminal trespass, third-degree burglary, promoting prison contraband, second-degree burglary, three individuals charged with third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and two individual charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a charged substance would be released under the new law, Stanzione said.
Of the 68 inmates being held prior to trial in Columbia County Jail, all but 15 of those will be released after Jan. 1, Czajka said.
“Those that will be released include defendants charged with offenses such as selling drugs, committing residential burglaries and reckless endangerment of children,” Czajka said.
Greene County Public Defender Angelo Scaturro thinks bail reform will allow his clients to be more involved in preparing their defense, he said.
“Five-hundred dollars to my clients is the world,” he said. “They couldn’t get out if it was $50.”
In the past, Scaturro believes his clients were so relieved after being detained for two weeks waiting for their court date, they quickly agreed to whatever deal they were offered, he said.
“For clarity, stark scenarios may be the best illustration of what is about to happen,” Czajka said. “Your readers may imagine a situation in which two people jump a victim on the street, punch her, kick her and steal her belongings. Should she be fortunate enough that the police catch these robbers, no judge will have the authority to send them to jail in lieu of bail.
“These are not victimless crimes,” Czajka added. “These are not petty crimes. These people will be out, in the community, able to offend again.”
Eugene Keeler, democratic candidate for Columbia County district attorney, favors releasing defendants of minor crimes.
“Holding people on minor offenses with small bail is not in the interest of justice,” Keeler said. “Holding someone in county jail at $80 a day is not in the taxpayers’ best interest, especially when it is a petty larceny or burglary down the street.”Discovery
When the new laws take effect, prosecutors will have 15 days within an arrest to turn over evidence to the defense.
Scaturro is in favor of the new law, he said.
“Prior to this, it was trial by fire,” he said. “Sometimes we would have things handed to us as a witness was taking the stand. The new process will make things more akin to a civil litigation. We will know what we have to work with and have a more fair playing field.”
The 15-day time frame is a bit onerous for the prosecution, Scaturro said.
Stanzione thinks the discovery law is excessive, he said.
“It results in a vast amount of work in a very short period of time,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen in 15 days.”
Information on cases has to get to the defense much quicker and much more complete than ever before, Hudson Police Chief L. Edward Moore said at a recent city police committee meeting in September.
“We have internal video, we have body cameras, we have cameras outside of the department, we have audio recordings of phone and radio transmissions,” Moore said. “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.”
Prior to the law, the DA’s office typically resolved about 70% of cases before going to trial, Stanzione said.
“Now we can’t resolve a case until all discovery has been given to the defense,” he said. “It is an unbelievable burden on criminal justice. I don’t think the people who passed it were very aware of the criminal justice system.”
Keeler said when he was first elected Columbia County district attorney in 1983, he had an open file policy for discovery procedures in his office.
“We did not prosecute anyone by surprise, which mean the defense lawyer could come in the DA’s office and we could go over the prosecutors file with the defense lawyer,” Keeler said. “Things were fully disclosed to the defendant’s attorney. That type of discovery is for the interest of justice. I was doing it many years before they started doing it in the state of New York.”
Keeler said that he agrees it will be difficult for prosecutors to adhere to the 15-day rule.
“It is going to be very tough for any prosecutor in the state of New York to fulfill the requirements,” Keeler said. “They don’t have control over the police and investigators in every department.”
Keeler added that, after years of prosecutors in the state delaying releasing files to the defense and playing games, prosecutors are now getting their “just desserts.”
Stanzione’s office is looking to acquire additional funding and staff to cope with the extra workload, he said.
“We are trying to do our best to prepare and be ready for it Jan. 1,” he said.
Part of the new discovery law will allow law enforcement officers and dispatchers’ personnel records to be available to the defense, Greene County Emergency Services Deputy Director Randy Ormerod said at the Public Safety meeting last week.
Public Safety Chairman William Lawrence, R-Cairo, thinks the law is an overreach.
“We were in amazement upon hearing that,” Lawrence said Friday. “The dispatchers simply direct law enforcement to where the crime occurred. Bail reform is bad enough with everyone getting appearance tickets. To hold a conviction liable upon the background of a dispatcher is overkill.”
Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett was concerned about the victims in cases whose identities will be released to the defense.
“The victim of a crime doesn’t want their name out there; now it is going to be released to the defendant and defense attorney,” Bartlett said. “A lot of time people know who the victim is. But if you don’t know who the victim is you would try to protect that victim until trial.”
That does not encourage victims to come forward, he said.
Also new, defendants can petition the court to ask to review the crime scene, which has some concerned about more serious crimes, such as rape and burglary.
“If you get your house burglarized, the guy who is charged with burglary might petition the court to go back to your home so he can prepare his defense,” Moore said in September. “He can look at the room he said you burglarized, and look at the window you said he broke.”
District attorneys and police have been speaking out about the issue, arguing they did not get a say in the process. Prosecutors have asked for the state to delay the rollout, but to no avail.
“I get the whole idea of what they [state lawmakers] are trying to do,” Bartlett said. “But I don’t think anything was thought out before they went and did it.”
This story is part of a series about the new criminal justice laws taking effect.
To reach reporter Amanda Purcell, call 518-828-1616 ext. 2500, or send an email to email@example.com, or tweet to @amandajpurcell.
Charges for which a defendant must be released from custody, without bail, after January 1, 2020:
Manslaughter in the second degree
Criminally negligent homicide
Aggravated vehicular homicide
Vehicular manslaughter in the first and second degrees
Assault in the third degree
Aggravated vehicular assault
Aggravated assault upon a person less than eleven years old
Vehicular assault in the first and second degrees
Criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds
Criminal possession of a firearm
Criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree
Criminal sale of a firearm to a minor
Criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first and second degrees
Criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first and second degrees
Criminal sale of a controlled substance in or near school grounds
Burglary in the second degree (residential burglary)
Burglary in the third degree
Robbery in the second degree (aided by another person)
Robbery in the third degree
Criminal sale of a controlled substance to a child
Patronizing a person for prostitution in a school zone
Promoting an obscene sexual performance by a child
Possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child
Promoting a sexual performance by a child
Bribery in the first degree
Bribe giving for public office
Bribe receiving in the first degree
Unlawful imprisonment in the first degree
Coercion in the first degree
Arson in the third and fourth degrees
Failure to register as a sex offender
Grand larceny in the first, second, third, and fourth degrees
Aggravated cruelty to animals, overdriving, torturing and injuring animals
Failure to provide proper sustenance to animals
Criminal solicitation in the first degree
Criminal facilitation in the first degree
Money laundering in support of terrorism in the third and fourth degrees
Obstructing governmental administration in the first and second degree
Obstructing governmental administration by means of a self-defense spray device
Promoting prison contraband in the first and second degrees
Tampering with a juror
Tampering with physical evidence
Aggravated harassment in the first degree
Directing a laser at an aircraft in the first degree
Money laundering in the first degree