ALBANY — A new state law requiring prosecutors to quickly turn over evidence files to defense lawyers is shaping up as a potential budget buster for local governments across the state, members of the New York Conference of Mayors said Monday.
Mayors from upstate and suburban regions said, during this year's legislative session, they lacked an adequate opportunity to weigh in on the legislation promoted by progressive Democrats from New York City and embraced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"It's not that we're against reforms, but it's just that the pendulum has swung way too far," said Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy, president of the mayors' group. He led about 80 city and village mayors who came to Albany to lay out their agenda for the coming legislative session.
The law — requiring that defense lawyers get all evidence files within 15 days of a criminal arraignment — is slated to take effect January 1. The mayors said they expect the requirement will not only affect county prosecutors, but also municipal police departments as they are often the initial source of the files that get routed to district attorneys.
Kennedy projected that for his local government, the additional work called for to comply with the new deadlines will add 5.7 percent to his village's annual budget. He suggested difficult budget cuts will have to be made in order to craft a spending plan that doesn't exceed the state's 2% tax cap.
The changes to the evidence law and new restrictions on cash bail have also ignited opposition from members of the New York Sheriffs Association and a parade of district attorneys.
Supporters of the new requirements said they were needed to balance the scales of justice, with defense lawyers having been hampered in their ability to craft defense strategies when they didn't get evidence until shortly before trials commenced.
One upstate mayor, Richard David of Binghamton, said the group of municipal leaders was not attacking the merits of trying to achieve greater fairness for defendants but merely objecting to the fact that local governments now await another unfunded mandate.
“The issue is more about the financial impact for municipalities in dealing with the changes, not necessarily the bail reform," said David, a Republican.
Kennedy said police departments will have to hire more cops to handle the additional work of assembling evidence packets and downloading video from cameras that some officers now wear on their uniforms.
"The financial burden is going to be tremendous," said Kennedy, contending state leaders should get input from local government leaders and budget directors on ways the changes could be implemented without saddling municipalities with new costs.
Another new law taking effect in January will eliminate cash bail for minor offenses.
That change will provide local governments with "hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings from a declining inmate population," said Freeman Klopott, spokesman for the state Division of the Budget.
State officials said about 66 percent of the inmates now being held in county jails are pre-trial detainees who can't make bail. The new bail law is expected to result in mandatory release for up to 90 percent of those charged with misdemeanors or non-violent felonies, they said.
Cuomo administration officials also noted the state has earmarked $100 million in the coming fiscal year for reforms designed to ensure defendants have a lawyer when they are arraigned along with other improvements to reduce the caseloads of public defenders.
Another $200 million in state funds will go to support the changes that go along with raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18, officials said.
The mayors are urging state leaders to postpone the implementation of the law requiring the early sharing of evidence — known in legal parlance as discovery — to July 1. The mayors also want dedicated funding to municipalities to offset the cost of complying with the new edict.
Further they suggest the timetable for turning over evidence be set aside when prosecutors and defense lawyers are involved in plea negotiations.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.