By Denis Slattery
April 5, 2019
The wheels of justice turn slowly.
At least that’s what court officials are telling advocates calling on prosecutors and judges to immediately enact a host of overhauls to the criminal justice system recently passed by state lawmakers.
The Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, and Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem banded together with an open letter Friday to push District Attorneys and judges in the five boroughs to immediately implement criminal justice reforms passed last weekend as part of the state budget.
The groups want the courts to act on the measures — which include the elimination of cash bail for the majority of criminal cases, the expansion of open discovery, requiring prosecutors to share all evidence well in advance of trials, and steps to speed up the time it takes for a defendant to see a judge — posthaste. The changes are slated to go into effect in Jan. 1, 2020.
“It is unthinkable that individuals accused of committing misdemeanors or low-level felonies between now and January will be subjected to the same broken system that the Legislature and Governor just remedied, while District Attorneys and Judges have the tools at their disposal to take action and mitigate these harms now,” the group writes.
However, such sweeping changes take time to implement, according to Lucian Chalfen, New York state court administration spokesman.
“The reason that the Governor and Legislature specifically did not require that the changes take effect immediately is that enacting these new statutes takes planning, revising courtroom and back office infrastructure and the redeployment of personnel, before they can be successfully implemented,” he said.
City District Attorneys declined to comment.
In their letter, the advocates point to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office as an example of how prosecutors can start making significant changes ahead of the law going into effect.
Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has “had a broad discovery practice for many years and has increasingly consented to release on recognizance," they write, adding that “District Attorneys can and should voluntarily implement early and complete discovery.”
The new law mandates evidence be turned over as soon as practicable, but no later than fifteen days after a case begins.
It also eliminates cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
“Starting today, nobody should be held on bail that they cannot afford, without seeing the evidence in their case, and nobody should be deprived of their right to a speedy trial,” the groups write. "We must look forward to the new realities of the criminal procedure law, and dispense once and for all with the unfair system that has harmed so many.”
Advocates have long argued that doing away with bail would help curb mass incarceration and rectify a system that unfairly affects poorer New Yorkers. Under the new law, defendants will either be released on their own recognizance or under non-monetary conditions, such as checking in regularly with a pretrial services agency.
Chalfen noted that, given the sheer size of the court system in the Big Apple and across the state, the request is just not feasible.
“Anyone who knows how an extremely diverse statewide branch of government covering all 57 counties and New York City in 350 courthouses with 1,300 judges and justices operates, wouldn’t have suggested it,” he said.