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Sheriff Office

So-called 'fixes' in this year's New York State's criminal justice reform bill have raised red flags from law enforcement and district attorneys across the state.  Even progressive State Attorney General Letitia James has expressed concerns, saying there are big problems with the 'fixes' and that her office will need half a million dollars next year alone, and millions more in the following years to comply with immediate discovery requirements.  The reform bill is an unfunded state mandate that will make it harder to take criminals off the streets, as well as taking officers off patrol to collate evidence and write reports in what many law enforcement agencies say is an unreasonable time frame.  Here in Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osbourne says he is not ready to ask the County Legislature for more money or manpower... yet. 

"I think it's going to be a process of seeing what it does to us come January 1st and experiencing it," Osborne says. "Because right now it's a great unknown. We can predict how we think it's going to happen, but, until we live it, it's going to be hard to say. So I think we're going to need all next year just to see how it goes. I wouldn't be comfortable asking for more staffing because of this legislation right now. We may have to shift assignments around in the Sheriff's office to accommodate the changes."

The two areas of greatest concern are twofold: first, cash bail has been eliminated for just about all misdemeanors and E Felonies.  When responding to a crime, officers will issue an appearance ticket, essentially releasing the accused into his or her own custody.  There are some exceptions, including sex offenses and domestic violence contempt, but not many.  The intent is to level the field for accused who can't afford bail versus those who can, and it is expected that jail populations will decrease as a result.  The second major change is discovery rules that require prosecutors to turn all evidence over to the accused and their attorneys within 15 days of an arrest.

Tompkins County Undersheriff Jenn Olin says the former may mean a more violent jail population that will be harder and more dangerous to manage.  She notes that Tompkins County's aggressive 'Alternatives to Incarceration' programs have already reduced the jail population here, so the County wouldn't experience that benefit.  And the 15 day discovery deadline could cause more problems for the courts.

"Some of the information that a district attorney has to turn over within those 15 days is witness information," she says. "Before they would withhold that information until just before the trial. Someone who is potentially facing going to prison is going to know who's going to be testifying against them within 15 days. And, unfortunately, that gives that person an opportunity for witness intimidation or witness tampering, or just for victims to not feel safe.  There might be fewer witnesses or victims willing to cooperate knowing that their information is going to be given to the defense attorney earlier."

Osborne says that this year's reform bill brings the most significant changes the State has imposed in a long time.  Between added desk work and what is expected to be a mountain of warrants that will have to be executed, manpower is the most serious concern.

"We had a conference call with the Vera Institute, which was a big proponent of pushing this legislation, and we asked, 'how are we supposed to do this?'" Osborne recounts. "And they said, 'well your warrant squad is going enforce your warrants'. We don't have a warrant squad. I mean, not everybody in New York State is on the NYPD, with all these bureaus and divisions!"

Olin says department personnel have been going through training and meetings to try to prepare for the new rules.  Law enforcement officers are currently able to arrest someone they know to be dangerous, while evidence continues to be collected and processed.  Now all of that has to be done within 15 days, or the arrest won't stand.

Olin says the supporting deposition, data on radar calibration, body cam footage, the officer's certification in that equipment, and other supporting data must be collated and reviewed within what law enforcement officials are saying is an insufficient amount of time.  Osborne adds the deputy that is assigned to body cams has to download all the video review it,  then send it to the DA, who also has to review it, all within 15 days.

"He's got to be able to have time to review it and then get it to the defense within 15 days," Osborne says. "I mean it's just, it's insane."

"You have to get a report done and submitted and down to the district attorney's office within 15 days, because they have to have time to review it within that 15 days," Olin adds. "And now we're taking our three to four deputies off the road to make sure they're getting reports done and in a more timely or manner."

Arrests will be at least double the work, because if an arrest can't be made when officers respond to a crime scene, they have to issue appearance tickets. If the accused doesn't show up, a warrant must be issued, and officers are left having to track defendants down.

"So you have somebody from Syracuse that's down here shoplifting in our mall in Lansing," Osbourne says. "What do we do with that? We're going to send deputies to Syracuse to try to find them?"

Osborne and Olin say they believe the intention in crafting the new procedures was good, but lawmakers didn't think through the practical aspects. 

"I think the intent was good," Osborne says. "A defendant should have what's going to be used against them in a prompt manner. There's no argument with that. But 15 days is crazy. The law enforcement agencies always accumulate all that evidence. Say we have to send something to Albany to be processed at the lab that could take months to get back. Currently, we may arrest somebody knowing we have a good case while we're waiting for some evidence to come through. We're not going to be able to do that in the future. We're going to have to wait for everything to come back and have everything so the District Attorney can review it, and then it's going to slow down your arrest process."

The practical manifestation of the legislation seems weighted toward people who commit crimes, and against law enforcement officers and victims.  Olin worries that fewer witnesses will come forward, because they will fear for their safety when their identities are disclosed long before a trial.   Osborne worries that the right of defendants and their attorneys to visit the scene of the crime will be especially stressful to people who have been robbed in their homes and must allow someone who may have terrorized them to come in for discovery.  And the reassurance that someone who has victimized you is in jail, so not able to continue to be a threat, will be stripped away.

"People's expectations that we are going to be able to properly arrest somebody during an investigation is going to change," Osborne says. "They're going to have to realize that we're going to have to slow down the process, because, again, once that person's arraigned, the clock starts ticking.   And so we're going to have to try to accumulate all that stuff before the person's arrested to make sure we meet the demands."

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