Police officials call for delay on criminal justice reforms 

Law enforcement officials from across the state are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to pause new bail laws and other criminal justice reform measures that go into effect on January 1.
click to enlarge Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty - PHOTO BY JAMES BROWN, WXXI NEWS
  • Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty

Rochester-area law enforcement leaders joined together Thursday to publicly make their request. They were part of a statewide show of force by the law enforcement community.

The reforms in question include the elimination of cash bail for a large number of criminal charges and changes to the state’s discovery laws, which lay out when prosecutors have to turn over evidence to defendants and their attorneys.
Several of the Rochester-area law enforcement officials expressed concerns about the changes to discovery laws.

Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty said his department makes many drug-related arrests on Interstate 390. One reform requires police agencies like his to process, test and turn over all evidence to defense attorneys within 15 days.

Several local sheriffs claim that trying to do that would stretch already thin resources. In the case of drug seizures, Dougherty said the 15-day mandate is impossible and that’s why Livingston County District Attorney Greg McCaffery asked him to stop roadside arrests starting in January.

“When he asked me to do that as sheriff, I believe I said, ‘absolutely not.’ But as we sorted through this complicated matter, it’s the only way as sheriff I can ensure that at some point they’re going to be held accountable,” said Dougherty.

Dougherty said if they charged someone and did not turn over all the evidence, the case would be thrown out. He says they plan to seize and process the drugs — but let the suspects go, at least for now.

The new laws also limit pretrial detention and eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenses.

Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts said that includes most drug offenses and vehicular manslaughter.

“A driver’s charged with vehicular manslaughter. Under the new law, the driver would be arraigned and released, as vehicular manslaughter is technically a nonviolent crime,” said Virts.

Virts and other local law enforcement warned of possible unexpected consequences of ending cash bail. They were joined by Dean Lucas, a father whose son died in 2016 of a heroin overdose just after he was released from jail.

“He was taken to jail, he was in jail. He was clean the entire time he was in,” said Lucas. “If he was just given a ticket to appear like in three months, I know exactly what he would have done. And if my son was here he’d tell you that the first thing he would have done is go back and buy and go use.”

But even before the reforms, New York’s bail system was only intended to ensure that defendants return to court. Its critics said judges often set excessive bail amounts for defendants, and that some defendants would languish in jail for weeks on relatively small amounts that they couldn’t afford to pay.

Critics contend that bail had evolved into a system where relatively affluent people could buy their freedom while the poor could not. Many defendants who can’t afford bail ultimately take plea deals, even if they aren’t guilty, just to get out of jail.

In an interview with WXXI News on Wednesday, Monroe County Public Defender Timothy Donaher lauded efforts made by county sheriffs and other agencies to handle drug addiction in jail but says that shouldn't affect the new laws.

“I don’t think we should be changing the reforms or modifying the reforms to either mandate or give judges the discretion to incarcerate people with drug addiction or mental health issues if they’re otherwise eligible for release,” said Donaher.

Donaher said the reforms are needed. Pretrial detentions in New York are increasingly separate and unequal, he said.

“That was leading to a system of justice that had nothing to do with public safety. What we were doing is jailing people who couldn’t come up with bail,” said Donaher.

As for complaints about how the law was shaped, Genesee Valley NYCLU’s Ashley Gantt said many residents were involved with shaping the law.

“So while they weren’t at the table, their constituents are at the table, who voted them into office,” said Gantt. “And I would say their voice that their voice is just as important if not more important.”

To comply with the new laws, several counties in the region are planning to release inmates before New Year's Day because some courts are closed for the holidays. Sheriff Dougherty called it “the Christmas Purge.” The Monroe County Sheriff's Office said it plans on releasing about 200 inmates on January 1.

But officials with the office didn’t offer details about what those defendants are charged with, except that they are all charged with nonviolent offenses.

The police agencies are hopeful that Governor Cuomo will pause the implementation to give them more time to prepare.

James Brown is a reporter for WXXI News.

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