A representative of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office was invited to attend last week’s meeting of the Public Safety Committee of the  Yates County Legislature to hear from Sheriff Ron Spike and District Attorney Todd Casella on the impact that the Bail Reform Act will have on law enforcement agencies and district attorney offices in small, rural counties like Yates. 

Zachary Palleschi-King of the Rochester office, was welcomed by Legislature Chairman Douglas Paddock and immediately presented with a hard fact. Paddock stated that just hiring two staff for the DA’s office and one more Sheriff’s Office Investigator for evidence handling, will eat up 70% of the 2% tax cap imposed on the county by the state, a significant cost to meet the requirements of the new law. While King appreciated that fact, he said he was here in a listening capacity only.

Casella spoke to King next, outlining the needs and situation for his office. 

•  The hiring of another full time assistant DA and another office staff person represents a $164,000 increase to the DA’s office budget.

•  The timing of 20-day court appearance tickets cannot be met by many local town courts which only meet once per month.

• The defendant notification option requirements placed on these courts is not possible with current technology, staffing, and budgets.

•  The 15-day full evidentiary discovery requirement on all cases (including traffic tickets), versus the approximately 20% of cases currently subject to discovery, will result in more than an 800% increase in the DA’s office workload. Even with new staff, there won’t be enough to pursue all these cases. Casella added that the loss of traffic ticket revenue to the state could be significant. Casella asked that the state contribution to prosecutor’s salaries be restored as well as the former hiring incentives.

Spike began by explaining the Bail Reform Act came about because of incidents on Rikers Island, New York City’s massive main jail complex, notorious for abuses and judicial neglect of indigent and poorer defendants.

“You cannot compare the Yates County Jail to Rikers Island,” said Spike. He conceded that elements of the bail process needed reform, but the state had gone too far for some crimes, and had taken away the discretion of the local courts.

“For many, holding in jail can be a stop sign for individuals going down the wrong track,” he said, and named several of the drug and alcohol recovery programs, and the social and religious counseling that now won’t be available to these defendants because they are not in the jail.

Spike then uttered the phrase that would be repeated by many in subsequent comments: unfunded mandate. “The (evidence) discovery requirements are an unfunded mandate and are a huge burden on law enforcement to meet within 48 hours in some cases, and 24 hours in others. We are facing a deluge of digital evidence, from 20 sources, on top of investigations underway.”

Spike concluded saying there is simply not enough available staff in Yates County. Hiring one more investigator is on his list and in the budget for 2020, but he is short six corrections officers required at the jail: three vacancies to fill, plus two COs out on disability and one on family medical leave. 

Spike also explained the lack of applicants who can pass the rigorous background checks and psychological examination.”Out of 10 applicants, we get perhaps two who are able to pass all the checks,” said Spike. He conferred with Undersheriff Howard Davis who said he believes that number would be closer to one.

With over 500 charges pending in Yates County, Spike says he simply doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with all the checklists for the requirements.

“It seems like we’re being set up to fail,” said Spike. “A lot more thought should have gone into it. It’s kind of a shame.”

Legislators had their say next, repeating the phrase “unfunded mandate” often. Others questioned the rationale of the Bail Reform Act’s sweeping changes across the state when the problem is largely the mismanagement of large city jails, Rikers Island in particular.

“Why impose the same rules on a 25,000 person county as on a 6 million person city?” asked one legislator rhetorically. “It doesn’t make sense.”

One pointed out how badly victim’s rights are protected in the bill. Another mentioned the elderly and Mennonite community who have been victimized by drug-motivated burglars who will now be released on appearance tickets.

When it came to funding, County Administrator Nonie Flynn asked what the state would be doing with the new internet sales tax revenue, and couldn’t some of that help pay for these concerns. Spike also mentioned the cell phone tax, of which he says only $65 million of over $200 million collected has actually made it to 911 and law enforcement where it was intended to go.

To all of this, King could offer no answers but did reply, “I represent the Governor’s office here in the Finger Lakes, but I also represent the Finger Lakes in the Governor’s Office. I promise you will be heard.”

Yates County budget impact

Nonie Flynn later reported that the cost of the two DA’s office positions and the Investigator would be a total of $227,000 in salaries and fringe benefits —  a rough spot in an otherwise exemplary budget for 2020.

Referring to an earlier statement made by the Sheriff, Flynn also predicts that there may be budgetary savings in the initial reduction of jail population being held for trial; but because those held will not be serving time credited to a final sentence, their actual time in jail after trial will be longer, and the number of inmates would soon return to the previous levels, as would the costs.

Other counties in the same boat

Steuben County District Attorney Brooks Baker is also seeking approval from their legislators for the hiring of a paralegal and an assistant district attorney to help meet state requirements for turning over documents to defendants; and another position for a part-time investigator to assist with that discovery process. He said that with a 15-day window to turn over information to a defendant that’s been charged, an additional investigator will be necessary to make sure contact information for witnesses and other important information is correct and included in those documents — something that’s not always the case when police agencies provide investigation paperwork to Baker’s office. The investigator will also track down additional information a defendant may request after receiving initial documents.

“There’s going to be a whole new font of motions (filed),”  Baker told the committee, but noted that the addition of staff won’t improve current conditions. “This is new work,” Baker said. “It’s not lifting any load off any other attorneys.” Baker says the discovery work is highly specialized, with most time spent in front of a computer or with piles of documents — and little chance of appearing in court. “It sounds like a miserable job,” said Legislator Steven Maio of Corning.”It does not sound like a fun job,” Baker responded. The addition brings the expected cost of complying with the state mandate to about $430,000 for next year.

That increase is being factored into the 2020 Steuben County budget currently being prepared for presentation this month, but Baker would like to have the staff on board and up to speed when the new law takes effect in January. His proposal, technically a request to waive a requirement that would slow the hiring process, got initial approval from the PSC Committee. If it’s approved by the Administration Committee, which is responsible for staffing decisions, it will go to the full Steuben County Legislature Nov. 25 for a vote.

Baker noted that while there is additional work to do on the Public Defender’s side as well under the new law, those expenses are being covered by state grants, at least for the immediate future. The state is not providing additional funding to cover expenses for prosecutors.

Governor and Attorney General at odds

The New York Law Journal reported last week  that Gov. Cuomo has stated he doesn’t believe the State Attorney General’s Office nor local district attorneys need any more funding than what they currently receive from the state to implement the new laws. Cuomo made the comments to the Journal when asked if he planned to include additional funding for prosecutors in his executive budget proposal in January.

“They’ve gotten a lot more funding. Everyone always says they want more funding. This year funding is going to be very difficult. We have a big Medicaid problem,” Cuomo said. “So, yeah. The answer to everyone’s problem is always more money. I get that.”

The Attorney General’s Office testified earlier this month before state lawmakers that it would need more than $10 million to implement the new laws.

Refuting that they need more funding to implement those reforms, as they’ve repeatedly claimed, Cuomo told the N.Y. Law Journal he didn’t buy it. “I think they’ve gotten additional funding, and they’re getting additional funding,” Cuomo said. “So, no. I don’t think they need more funding.”

The Journal reports that Cuomo’s comments did not sit well with the District Attorneys Association of the State of N.Y. (DAASNY), the state’s trade group for prosecutors. DAASNY estimated the cost could reach as high as $100 million statewide for upgrading technology for local prosecutors and law enforcement, and hiring more staff to comply with the changes. 

When the state legislature approved the new laws on criminal discovery earlier this year, no additional funding was included for prosecutors to implement the new law.

Kate Powers, director of legislative affairs for the Attorney General’s Office, recently told members of the state Legislature at a public hearing, that their current level of funding wasn’t adequate and they would need an immediate infusion of $500,000 to comply with the new laws starting next year, followed by an additional $9.7 million in the future. 

“Our office is providing testimony today to say that we strongly support these requests and urge you to account for these needs in the upcoming 2020 budget,” Powers said.