Prosecutors say a criminal justice change has gone unfunded
As she begins her full term this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul has vowed to address constituents’ concerns about crime. A key plank on her public safety agenda is increasing funding for changes to how evidence is handled in criminal cases.
“We are not going to allow people to commit crimes and break our laws and hurt other individuals,” Hochul said last week after visiting the Albany Public Safety Building. “We’re finding many, many ways to address that.”
Changes to the discovery process, said Albany County District Attorney David Soares, have created a major headache for local prosecutors. The problems can be as mundane as redactions to more complex such as incompatible technology across multiple law enforcement agencies.
“It literally changed the practice of criminal justice across the state,” Soares said in an interview.
The changes require defendants to gain faster access to evidence in a criminal case. But without funding, the law has strained resources for law enforcement who must review every piece of evidence before it is turned over.
“That means that within the first 30 days of your case where you should be talking to victims, where you should be talking to eyewitnesses and really getting a feel for your case, you spend more time generating information, gathering information , to convey information,” said Soares.
Discovery changes, along with ending cash bail requirements for many criminal charges, have led to an increase in recidivism, Soares said.
“It complicates and clogs things up, so the people who are actually out there, victims of crime, they want justice and they want justice rather quickly, all of that is delayed,” he said.
And then there’s the toll taken on workers with an overwhelming mountain of paperwork, leading some to use weekend time to get through the proof process.
“The discovery reforms that were passed are the only reform that drove more prosecutors and police out the door,” Soares said.
Hochul is pushing for more funding for district attorneys’ offices around New York to implement the changes, increasing spending from $12 million to $52 million. Democratic state assemblyman Steve Otis is open to more funding.
“One thing we learned when we changed the discovery laws is that it takes more work, there are grids and the criminal justice system needs resources to comply, to get information to everyone who deserves it,” Otis said.
But Republicans like Assemblyman Phil Palmesano believe the discovery changes should never have been made in the first place.
“This should have been done a long time ago,” Palmesano said of the funding, “but there also needs to be more conversations with our district attorneys about these mandates causing problems with our criminal justice system.”