JUSTICE FOR ALL?/PART I
Editor’s Note: With New York State’s judicial reforms going into effect Jan. 1, Otsego County judicial and law enforcement leaders have been expressing concerns about possible negative impacts locally. This article, on severely reducing the number of crimes that allow suspects to be held on bail, is the first of three articles.
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Sheriff Richard J. Devlin, Jr. recognized that criminal justice reform was needed, but with new bail reforms looming, he fears the state may have gone too far.
“This is going to put criminals back on the streets and take police off the streets while they do paperwork,” he said. “It wasn’t well thought through, and law enforcement wasn’t consulted.”
The bail reform, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020, eliminates bail and remand for all but a limited group of “qualifying offenses,” including some violent felony offenses, sex offenses, criminal contempt with domestic violence and witness tampering or intimidation.
And when bail is allowed, financial circumstances and the ability to secure a bond must be considered. A judge can order that Least Restrictive Non-Monetary Conditions can be imposed, including restrictions on travel and weapons possession or electronic monitoring.
But several felonies – criminally negligent homicide, possession of a gun on school grounds and assault among them – are not qualifying offenses and would not be subject to bail.
For example, Kimberly Steeley, who is charged with smothering her infant twins Bonde and Liam, was charged with two counts manslaughter in the second degree in May, and released on $100,000 bond. Under new bail reform, no such bail would have been set, as manslaughter in the second degree is not a qualifying offense.
In addition to qualifying offenses, bail can be set if a defendant doesn’t show for court dates or commits additional crimes while awaiting trial.
Each county will be required to have a Pre-Trial Service Agency, either in-house or on contract, to monitor defendants and notify them of their court dates. “They’ll have to hold their hands,” said Christopher DiDonna, assistant district attorney. “It’s their responsibility to make sure the defendant shows up.”
Devlin also worries that the new standards will have a negative consequences for people who are struggling with drug addictions. “Sometimes jail is needed,” he said. “When we arrest someone who has a drug problem, we try to get them help. If there are no ramifications, they might not seek that help themselves.”
And with new standards for arrests – all evidence must be turned over to the prosecution within 15 days of arraignment – Devlin fears that many criminals will remain free while lab tests hold up their formal arrest.
“If someone drives drunk and kills someone, we can’t arrest them until the lab results come back,” he said. “That could be six months, and meanwhile, they’re out there. It’s going to mean more open cases with no arrests for us.”
And if someone who has been arrested, but not held on remand or bail, decides to skip court dates, it’s up to Devlin to determine whether or not to track them down.
“If someone flees, we have to go get them,” he said. “We have to decide if they’re worth the money.”
However, Devlin does not see bail reform having a long-term impact on the Otsego County Jail, which is currently undergoing repairs after a series of leaks rendered it uninhabitable.
Though repairs are underway, Devlin is still preparing to ask the county to budget funds for a new jail. “Corrections has changed since our jail was built,” he said. “There’s no way to fix it to those standards. We need a new jail.”
Based on states like New Jersey, which had also implemented bail reform, Devlin expects a short-term drop in inmates of around 40 percent.
“But when people are remanded for not showing up, or they are sentenced, we expect to see the population rebound,” he said. “But the ones that will be there, they’re not the best behaved people.”
“Criminal justice needed to be discussed,” he said. “But we slid the other way, and that worries me.”
NEXT WEEK: Justice Reform and discovery requirements.