MAHONEY: 2020 will feature new chapters in criminal justice battles

Joe Mahoney

ALBANY — New year, new issues?

Well, not necessarily at the New York statehouse.

Come January, when the west bank of the Hudson River is in deep freeze, you can expect intense debate over funding for criminal justice programs and policies authorized this year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers.

One of the biggest struggles for money is expected to pit county prosecutors against Cuomo as the financial consequences are manifested from the new cashless bail law and requirements for speedy disclosure of evidence and testimony to criminal defense lawyers.

The District Attorneys Association of New York State is insisting the county offices it represents should not have been left high and dry in the wake of all the new work that will now be piling up as these requirements kick in.

"Other states that have eliminated cash bail have dramatically increased funding for pre-trial services to make sure that people return to court and do not re-offend," David Hoovler, the group's president and the Orange County district attorney, said in a statement. "With more people being released after arrest, there will be more need for pre-trial services."

Hoovler fears county governments will be saddled with new costs if the state refuses to pick up the tab associated with all the new requirements.

In part, these edicts from Albany are designed to trim jail populations so that people aren't left to languish behind bars because they are too poor to cough up bail money. At least that's how it was advertised, along with the traditional rhetoric that the criminal justice system is "broken."

Hoovler, though, is also deeply concerned about what the potential consequences will be for public safety.

Cuomo, who is no shrinking violet, is putting up his own aggressive defenses for his stances.

"Everyone always says they want more funding," Cuomo told Dan Clark of the New York Law Journal. "This year funding is going to be more difficult. We have a big Medicaid problem. So, yeah. The answer to everyone's problem is more money. I get that."

When Clark pressed further, asking if more money was needed to help the prosecutors and state attorney general's office deal with the work headed their way, Cuomo stuck to his default position. "I think they've gotten additional funding...So, no. I don't think they need more funding," the governor told Clark.

What we can take from that exchange is that Niagara District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek, Clinton District Attorney Andrew Wylie, Otsego District Attorney John Muehl and all the other county prosecutors in New York will likely be urging lawmakers come January to fight to amend Cuomo's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. If the prosecutors have to pass the cup at their respective county board meetings, it could all lead to higher property taxes for homeowners and businesses.

But more than higher taxes may be in the offing. Hoovler voiced concern about the ability of prosecutors to protect the public if they are piled up with more work without the resources to go along with the assignment.

"The governor's unwillingness to appropriate funds for for this unfunded mandate will only cause victims to be victimized again when prosecutors are unable to perform the basic functions of their offices," Hoovler said.

While prosecutors and police groups lost the early rounds this year in the fight over bail restrictions, GOP state senators now have enlisted advocates for domestic violence victims in opening a new front in the ongoing debate over how to balance the scales of justice.

Representatives of several battered women's shelters came to Albany Nov. 7 to back new bills that would require judges to consider a defendant's "dangerousness" when determining if the person should be confined before trial. The bills were put forward by Senators Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, a former sheriff, and Sue Serino, R-Hyde Park.

The law slated to take effect January 1 limits judges, in dealing with most offenses, to consider only the risk of flight when making pre-trial detention decisions.

But the proposed legislation from Gallivan and Serino would free judges to set bail in cases where defendants are charged with aggravated family offenses including domestic violence and sex crimes.

"Progressive changes to bail reform should not and cannot come at the expense of victim safety," said Branka Bryan, director of the Grace Smith House, a domestic violence agency in Poughkeepsie.

  

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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