District Attorney: Right on bail, discovery

District Attorney right on bail, discovery

Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl is in a dangerous spot when it comes to what we understand his position to be on the third-rail issues of bail and discovery reform.

He can see both sides of the issue.

That’s poison these days – acknowledging, in this case, that those calling for reform to the criminal justice system had reason to do so but that those saying it went too far are equally justified.

“Form over function,” he called it, and The Freeman’s Journal / Hometown Oneonta agrees. We support the District Attorney’s thoughtful approach.

While the most ardent backers of criminal justice reform in Albany point to somewhat favorable violent recidivism statistics and declare the issue all but closed, Mr. Muehl has his own, more localized and immediate realities: a plunge in the number drug dealer prosecutions. He’s also watched his successful drug court drop from 50 participants to just three – those choosing drug court in the past, he said, would be in jail “on a fair amount of bail” to give them time to think about their options and choose to sober up rather than going right back out onto the streets.

Then there are the retailers in the County facing their own recidivism issues, Because shoplifting, organized or otherwise, tends to fall outside the classic definition of “violent crime,” few thieves remain behind bars and are back stealing from the same store(s) they hit only hours before. It is a problem.

But in the words of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, “You know, an incident happens and it’s just jail jail jail.” His Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, points out a past that reform came from “a disparate impact negatively specifically on Black and Brown communities. If you had money you could get out, if you didn’t, you stayed in.” She noted specifically the case of Kalief Browder, a Bronx resident held on Riker’s Island for three years because he couldn’t make bail for allegedly stealing a backpack containing valuables. Two years after his release, he hanged himself.

February being Black History Month, it’s an ideal time to consider these important points of view – the how, when, and where of bail and the impact it can have. The history of bail as little more than a tool to keep minority populations locked up. It is a problem.

The loudest voices in the debate right now belong to the reform advocates who refuse to consider change to the new laws on one side and, on the other, those who demand a complete roll-back of the 2019 and 2020 statutes. This is not an all-or-nothing situation, yet sadly, our polarized culture demands that kind of sloganeering but might be better served by looking down the middle of the road.

The District Attorney says he has no philosophical opposition to the concept of the reforms but that, in reality, “they went way too far.” The form-over-function anchor that weighs down discovery reform prevents prosecutors from doing their real work in favor of filling out reports that, in turn, bog down the desks of defense attorneys who are getting more useless information than they could ever need.

We agree with Mr. Muehl’s fundamental premise and hope in the coming months our lawmakers in Albany will similarly agree that no law is perfect right out of the box. There’s room to keep important new criminal justice protections in place and return function to the process without tilting the scales too far in favor of one side or the other.

2 thoughts on “District Attorney: Right on bail, discovery

  1. Thomas Russo

    Defendants are still presumed innocent until proven guilty in this county and this country. The purpose of bail is to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court not to give them “time to think about their options” or force them into drug court.

  2. portia

    New York, particularly New York City, had a lot of problems with its bail system. Unfortunately, the changes of the legislature threw the baby out with the bathwater.
    If someone languished on Riker’s Island for three years awaiting trial, the remedy is to increase the number of judges and court facilities so that there is not a long wait for trial.
    Everyone accused of a crime doesn’t need to have to post bail, but there should be conditions set for them to continue being out, such as not being rearrested on probable cause and showing up for court hearings. If they violate those conditions, the judges should have the discretion to revoke their release and set bail, as well as set bail on any new charges.
    Judges should also have the discretion to set bail on all felony charges, as well as serious repeat offenders in misdemeanor cases.

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