Officials: Justice Reform Act leads to spike in cases

John Christensen The Chronicle-Express

The changes wrought by the state in the handling of criminal cases has seen a rise of more than 50% in the cases being opened. As of last Friday, District Attorney Todd Casella reports his office has opened 95 cases, compared to 61 cases by the same date in 2019; a 58% increase in Yates County. This number varies across the state, he told the Public Safety Committee last week.

One caveat in this discrepancy, says Casella, is that in 2019 the DA was not opening more minor cases such as 2nd degree aggravated unlicensed operation, disorderly conduct, or harassment. Those cases would procede to the courts on police papers.

“The reason we are opening these additional cases is a combination of the bail reform; people out of jail are a threat to the public and therefore commit more crimes — and evidence discovery reform; we have to provide discovery on ALL cases now and we need to open all arrests in our electronic case management system,” says Casella.

“We opened 69 cases in January alone, compared to 25 cases in January 2019,” says Casella.

“Of those 69 cases, 26 of them were committed by nine people; one of whom was arrested five times, another was arrested four times.”

Probation department Director Sharon Dawes reported to the committee that the department is “swamped with investigations.” She reports there were 25 investigations under way in Feb. 2020 compared to 11 in Feb. 2019; with 54 investigations year to date, compared to 28 at this point in 2019.

One suggestion from the state as an alternative to bail is granting Pre-Trial Release (PTR) to those waiting for trial. This requires the defendant be monitored by Probation Officers, often reporting both in person and by telephone each week. Dawes points out, however, there are no consequences that can be imposed on a defendant who does not comply with the court order for PTR; only if that defendant fails to appear on scheduled court dates. Casella concurred, saying he has stopped requesting PTR since it only increases the workload on Probation. Dawes and Casella both agreed when asked, the only solution is a change in the law made in Albany.

Sheriff Ron Spike also reported the increase in a variety of calls with bail reform, responding to 1,178 total incidents in Jan. 2020 versus 879 incidents in Jan. 2019. This includes a sharp increase in the number of court orders of protection being served to protect victims from defendants who are no longer held on bail.

The jail population has now fallen low enough that the men’s dormitory has been closed. Despite that, Spike is still facing chronic manpower shortages among Corrections Officers, and an off-duty injury has placed a Road Deputy/School Resource Officer on leave. Spike proposed a resolution to fill two Corrections positions as well as a new jail cook.The legislators approved both resolutions Monday.

Spike’s effort to find new hires is hamstrung by the fact that the results of a Civil Service test given in September have not yet been returned by the state for him to draw candidates. Even then, the long process of background and psychological checks can disqualify some who pass the exams.