ALBANY — District attorneys in Greene and Columbia counties are speaking out as state Senate Democrats came forward this week with proposed modifications to the contested bail reform law.
The proposal includes eliminating cash bail entirely and restoring limited discretion to judges. Nearly all misdemeanors will not be eligible for judicial discretion, and therefore remand, according to the Senate Majority office.
Exceptions include crimes that result in the death of another person, certain domestic violence felonies and certain hate crimes.
Judges could also take into account a person’s past criminal record when determining whether to remand a defendant, according to the Senate Majority office.
“We are getting rid of cash bail completely,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Friday. “Simply put, the reforms will ensure that no one will be incarcerated simply because of their inability to pay and that no one will be let out of prison because of their enormous wealth."
Defendants would be given a hearing within 48 hours of their arraignment to determine whether they will be released or remanded, according to the proposal.
If a defendant is remanded, they can request a second hearing.
“All of those proposals would improve the law,” Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said Friday.
The discovery law, which requires all evidence be turned over to the defense within 15 days, has been extremely difficult for his office, Czajka said.
“It has been a substantial burden on my office, as well as all the police agencies in the county,” he said. “We are working as best we can to comply.”
To date, no cases have been dismissed due to the new law, Czajka said.
“I anticipate issues will arise and have arisen due to the law and will result and have resulted in requests to dismiss cases,” he said.
One of the issues with the new law is that witnesses can end up in the crosshairs, Czajka said.
“One of the most difficult jobs I’ve had over the years is to assure victims and witnesses that their identities and locations will be kept secret, at least until the trial,” he said. “I can no longer make that promise. As a result, I am very concerned that witnesses to crimes will no longer come forward, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute certain crimes.”
The proposed modifications are a step in the right direction, Greene County District Attorney Joseph Stanzione said Friday.
“It doesn’t go far enough but it’s better than what we have,” he said.
A key part of the proposal is to restore discretion to judges, Stanzione said.
“Judges should have discretion over who goes to jail,” he said. “Upstate judges are very keen on that and are very fair. Most of the problems with bail were reflected downstate.”
The modifications would allow a judge to take into consideration the community’s safety, which is a key element, Stanzione said.
Greene County Sheriff Peter Kusminsky agreed.
“Judges need to be able to consider the possibility that the accused is a flight risk, if they are likely to be a serial offender or a danger to society,” he said.
Both bail reform and the changes to discovery have “bogged down” his office, Stanzione said.
One defendant was arrested in Durham for seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and released, then arrested in Cairo for petty larceny and released, then arrested for petty larceny in Catskill and released, then arrested for grand larceny when he stole a vehicle and released, and finally was arrested on a warrant when he did not appear at any of his court dates, Stanzione said.
The defendant did not show up for his subsequent court date, he added.
“The 15 days is turning us all into clerks instead of attorneys,” Stanzione said. “That time period needs to be extended: No less than 45 days. We have not had any cases dismissed because of the new law but we have a lot more work to do.“
No funding was established to increase staff, Stanzione said.
The Senate Majority’s proposal includes a request for funding for pre-trial service agencies to assist with the implementation of the discovery laws.
The proposal also indicates that the discovery deadline would be extended but does not indicate by how much. Greater protection would be given to witnesses to ensure the anonymity of 911 callers, according to the Senate Majority’s office.
It was not immediately known when state lawmakers will vote on the proposed modifications.