Since April and the passage of the New York Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) as one of 10 omnibus bills that made up the $175 billion state budget passed by state lawmakers April 1, law enforcement officials all over the state have been voicing their concerns for how this will impact the arrest, detention, and prosecution of accused criminals. 

With the reforms tailored largely to address issues in major metropolitan areas, come January 2020, rural counties and villages with relatively small law enforcement agencies will face a hard period of adjustment and potentially crippling costs to pay for increased personnel.

Yates County District Attorney Todd Casella has been at the forefront addressing these concerns, not just for his own office but by being invited to speak to other counties around the state on what burdens the new act will place on the criminal justice system. 

Casella says the CJRA was drawn up by state legislators and defense attorneys with no input from district attorneys or law enforcement officials. 

At the Sept. 3 meeting of the Public Safety Committee (PSC) of the Yates County Legislature, Casella presented four resolutions he wished to be brought before the full legislature.

1. To create another full-time position for an Assistant District Attorney

2. To create another full-time confidential secretary/law enforcement liaison position

3. To authorize the DA to sign a memorandum with The New York Prosecutors Training Institute (NYPTI) for Digital Evidence Management Software (DEMS) services

4. To authorize the Chairman of the Legislature to enter an intermunicipal agreement with local municipalities for court internet access.

The increase in staffing is the primary concern for Casella, but the impact that would have on the county budget is the primary concern of many of the legislators. With widespread agreement in the room that this is another “unfunded mandate” from Albany championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Casella outlined the implications the CJRA on the court system and his duties.

Discovery

Currently, discovery is only provided on request by defense counsel (about 25% of cases in Yates County). With the CJRA, full discovery must be provided on every case, including traffic tickets and violations. Casella has calculated this will be a 687.5% increase on the discovery workload for the DA’s office, and all within 15 days from arraignment. Once done, a certificate of compliance with Criminal Procedure Law 245 must then be filed. With that, the DA can announce readiness for trial and the speedy trial clock stopped to avoid dismissal. Any new evidence gathered after that filing requires a new certificate to be filed. Under the CJRA, defendants are not permitted to plead guilty, even if they wish to, until a certificate of compliance has been filed.

Protective orders

Under the new system, DAs may redact only Social Security and tax ID numbers. Any other other information, including victims’ and witnesses’ addresses, phone numbers, and bank accounts, can only be redacted under a protective order issued by the court after application by the DA. The court must then hold a hearing within three days, and defendants are granted a speedy appeal process. If new material is received that must be redacted, Casella says this process starts all over.

Defendants’ access to victims’ homes

Every defendant is allowed to apply to the court for access to the victim’s home if it was the scene of the crime. Notice must be provided to the People and the victim, but no attorney is provided for the victim in these applications. Casella says his office will advocate for the victims against these applications being granted by the court.

Casella outlined the current duties of his secretary, the one full-time and one part-time ADAs, as well as his own. In addition to receiving all paperwork sent to the DA’s office, the secretary is solely responsible for opening each case on case management system, and is the primary liaison with all law enforcement agencies, requesting and logging all paperwork, digital evidence, 911 calls, and radio transmissions. 

The DA and the ADAs are already unable to cover all the court obligations in the Centralized Arraignment Court (CAC), local courts, county court, and grand jury. The relatively new CAC system was created with state estimates about how many cases would be appearing there, but county officials say those assumptions were off the mark, and Casella says this will become an even more persistent problem with the CJRA.

With full discovery, just the time spent reviewing every piece of video surveillance from police body cameras to redact sensitive information such as the identity of witnesses, contact information, and building security keypad codes, will be beyond what the current number of attorneys can accomplish, he says. He also warns that litigation over these technical, preliminary matters will increase before the actual argument of the cases will begin. 

All of Casella’s presentation to the county legislators points to the need to make these new hires expeditiously in the competition with other counties to find new employees. 

“Every district attorney that I am aware of is requesting additional staff to prepare for the changes coming in 2020,” he stated in his report. “Larger offices have the ability to shift staff and redistribute work, whereas smaller counties like Yates do not,” he says.

He compared Yates to Schuyler which has three full-time and one part-time attorney, and three office staff who serve a smaller population. 

Nor is Casella the only DA making these arguments. In neighboring Steuben County, DA Brooks Baker also requested permission to hire at least one new assistant district attorney and one paralegal to meet the requirements of a change in state law. He too, lamented that the state isn’t offering any financial help in meeting the new requirements. 

“They have given us no funding,” Baker said, warning that the CJRA will ultimately require more than just the two new Steuben County positions he requested, even with the adoption of new technology to make the process as paperless as possible. Baker asked for and received permission to begin interviewing candidates while the legislature considers approving the hires. “I’ve got to train people and be up and running Jan. 1,” he noted.

Casella was not as fortunate. While Yates Legislature Chairman Douglas Paddock said Casella had “made a convincing case,” the legislature voted to table the hiring resolutions until October, when they will formulating the 2020 county budget. 

According to the Cuomo administration, since he took office in 2011, New York has closed 24 adult and juvenile detention facilities, eliminating over 5,500 beds. The prison population has decreased by 16.7% from 56,419 to 46,973 people as of Feb. 2019, the lowest level in 30 years, resulting in an annual savings of approximately $162 million. The 2020 Enacted Budget will close up to three more prisons. At the same time, the state has remained the safest large state in the country with the lowest crime rate and incarceration rate among the most populous states, according to the executive office.  

In 2017, reported index crime in the state reached an all-time low since reporting began in 1975. Cuomo resolves that “New York will continue to push progressive reforms to maintain New York’s status as the safest large state in the nation, without an unnecessary and counterproductive reliance on incarceration.”

The New York Law Journal reported at the CJRA changes will eliminate cash bail for most low-level crimes, like misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, including drug felonies. Defenders have argued that the current system disenfranchises low-income defendants and people of color. 

Locally, Penn Yan Police Chief Thomas Dunham has expressed his deep reservation on what impact that will have on drug interdiction and public safety. “Under the new law, after January, we can arrest someone for selling a pound of heroin or burglarizing somebody’s home as a non-violent felonies, and we’ll have to release them with an appearance ticket,” he says.

Includes reporting by James Post, Corning Leader