Prosecutors, Sheriffs Join Chorus
Of Woes Emerging In Past 37 Days
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
MIDDLEFIELD – It was a day for reporting nightmares.
Oneonta Police Chief Doug Brenner reported his officers apprehended a possible shoplifter, but were unable to hold the suspect under New York State’s criminal justice reforms. “Even before we are done” with the paperwork, the store owners called again. “The shoplifter was back in their business,” the chief said.
All police agencies need informers to crack drug cases, said Schoharie County Sheriff Roy Brown. Now, under new discovery provisions, “your informants will be disclosed before suspects can come to trial.” Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, said an informer on the MS-13 Puerto Rican gang was identified through disclosures required under the state reforms, and was killed.
Julie Dostal, executive director of Oneonta’s LEAF Council on Addictions, said arresting a drug user or alcoholic often creates a “window of willingness,” when people are susceptible to accepting help. With such people simply being sent back out the door, “the window is being shut,” she said.
The scene in the lobby of the Otsego County Jail this morning – the space also serves as the central unified courtroom for town justices under a separate reform – was a rally emceed by Assemblyman John Salka, R-Brookfield, and hosted by Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr. It was also attended by state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, four assemblymen in all, three county sheriffs and county District Attorney John Muehl.
Today’s gathering was called a rally, but it fit into a series of “roundtable discussions” the state Republican leaders are planning in Buffalo, Long Island, Syracuse and elsewhere.
With the bail reforms, “we don’t have the ability to take people off the streets anymore,” said Madison County Sheriff Todd Hood, who also criticized Governor Cuomo for slipping the reforms in to the 2019 state budget bill, with no public hearings or opportunity for state Legislature debate.
If the bail reforms are bad, the procedural reforms, including requiring evidence on cases to be assembled within 15 days, are worse, said Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl. “My office is crippled by this.”
He said this year he expects to bring 60 percent of the cases he brought last year. And he pointed out that the governor, who is avoiding accepting responsibility for the reforms’ downside, is himself a former ADA in New York City. “He knows exactly what this law is doing to us,” said Muehl.
Madison County Chief Assistant District Attorney Robert Mascari reported, due to the new hurdles to prosecuting crime, his department has been unable to fill a prosecutor vacancy. The day the reforms went into effect, three Jefferson County ADAs quit, he said.
Seward said Democratic defenders of the reforms say they’ve been implemented in other states, like New Jersey. The difference, he said, is they were phased in over three years, in consultation with the law-enforcement community and other stakeholders.
Most egregious, the senator said, the reforms take judgment calls out of the hands of judges. He called it “empowering repeat offenders.” Freed suspects are back on the streets and, in numerous cases in the law’s first 37 days, are committing more crimes, locally and across the state, he said.
In those 37 days, Tague said, there have been at least 66 cases of suspects freed who in very short order were arrested for another crime.
“Here we are,” Seward said: “Exactly what we said would happen has happened.”
Back in session since early January, Salka said, “we have not been allowed to debate the issue once in the past five weeks.”
Before the state Legislature recessed the other day, Tague added, the Democratic leadership cautioned rank and file members not to criticize them during the break.
But the assemblymen present locally today said unhappiness over the reforms has developed into the single most important issue before this year’s legislature. “We will not give up,” Salka said.
Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Meco, pointed out that half of New York State’s population lives below seven miles into Westchester County, and the downstate-dominated state Legislature is “taking a New York City problem and flipping it Upstate.”
“It’s not working in the suburbs and it’s not working in the city,” said Tague.
“It’s not working at all,” Smullen added.