By Bill Mahoney
Advocates for discovery reform will launch a new coalition on Monday in advance of a renewed push in next year's legislative session.
The effort will include a number of groups that are regularly involved in criminal justice reform efforts, such as the Legal Aid Society and Katal Center. But several organizations new to the reform effort have signed on, including District Council 37, Citizen Action of New York, and the New York Hotel Trades Council. Discovery refers to the ability of criminal defendants to know details about the evidence that will be brought against them in advance of a court case. Advocates argue that New York has one of the worst discovery laws in the country, making it harder for defendants to prepare for their day in court.
"Prosecutors can wait until just before trial to turn over the most basic evidence like witness names, witness statements, and police reports," said Rebecca Brown of the Innocence Project. "You're not even entitled to know who is accusing you. And this obviously has huge implications for the innocent, leading them to plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit."
With Democrats poised to take control of the Senate, the odds of passage have gotten better.
The reform bill is sponsored in the upper chamber by Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), who will serve as the chair of the Codes Committee, which deals with criminal justice issues like discovery. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has backed reforms, although the details in a bill he introduced on the topic last year were criticized by advocates. Assemblyman Joe Lentol (D-Brooklyn) sponsored a more popular bill that passed his chamber last year, though it stalled in the Senate.
"We got a very good bill through the Assembly last session, and with the Democrats now in the majority in the Senate, we're confident we can work constructively with them to push similar legislation through that chamber," said Brown. "[We] are engaging all of the parties including the governor."
Supporters have launched multiple unsuccessful campaigns on this issue in recent years. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York has opposed reform proposals in the past, saying that the legislation might increase the likelihood of witness tampering and intimidation.