Nassau and Suffolk counties are poised to spend millions of dollars to hire new staff, pay police overtime and purchase new software to comply with sweeping statewide changes to the criminal justice system to be rolled out beginning Jan. 1.
The new laws, approved in April, eliminate cash bail for defendants facing misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges — the bulk of all criminal defendants — so that their ability to pay no longer will determine whether they have to remain in jail while awaiting a court date.
The new laws also require prosecutors meet a tightened 15-day deadline to turn over evidence such as police reports, photos, electronic recordings and witness information to the defense, and share information with defendants to review when they're deciding whether to enter into guilty pleas.
Some 300 inmates in the Nassau County jail and 300 in Suffolk would qualify for release on Jan. 1 under the new guidelines, county correction officials have said. The defendants would be released home or back into the community while awaiting trial and subject to monitoring and re-arrest should they not show up to court dates.
Some police, prosecutors and Republican lawmakers in New York have warned the legislation went too far and endangers public safety. They have pointed to charges, including aggravated vehicular homicide, that won't be eligible for bail in New York, allowing defendants to remain out of jail while awaiting trial.
Supporters of the changes say such concerns are overblown. They cite studies and the experiences of other places, including New Jersey, showing no increase in crime associated with criminal justice changes, including elimination of cash bail.
In New York, officials say, the criminal justice changes will affect every law enforcement agency and department in Nassau and Suffolk, including the district attorneys; county, town and village police departments; correction departments; crime labs; and social services.
Nassau has allocated about $4 million and Suffolk more than $5 million in their 2020 budgets to implement the laws, and officials in both counties say they are prepared to transfer funds from other areas if necessary.
But some officials complain that the unfunded state mandate is shifting too much of the cost of the legislation onto the counties. Counties in New York will have to monitor an increased number of defendants awaiting trial, and will face tighter timelines for transferring evidence to both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Supporters of the new laws say counties will be able to offset the cost with new revenues from internet sales tax. The adopted state budget allows counties outside New York City to share $160 million in estimated tax collections from out-of-state retailers that have no stores or warehouses in New York.
Counties also will be spending less on clothing, health care, food and other inmate costs once the jail populations begin to decline due to the legislation, the backers say.
Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said his office has trained dozens of new staff members, updated software and consulted with county police as well as more than two dozen town and village police departments in anticipation of the changes.
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas' office is getting 30 new hires to aid in compliance with the law.
“We are in full preparation mode,” Sini said in an interview. “There are significant structural changes on every level, but it takes time to hire people.”
Sini said the new laws “have created expenses not funded by the state budget so we had to request money from the county. It’s going to be challenging and difficult but we are going to get it done.”
Stephen J. Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, which supports the legislation, said the state must provide localities with more funding.
Acquario cited increased costs for pretrial supervision, district attorney staff and collecting and transporting offenders who fail to show up for court appearances.
The legislation represents "a massive change in the state's penal law and in less than a month from now the counties must come together and execute this state law," Acquario said. "So it will be an all hands on deck approach because its in everybody's best interest that the laws are executed in the way the state had intended."
The association will continue to lobby for direct state funding of pretrial services and discovery, Acquario said.
Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president Noel DiGerolamo said, "what the state has done is ill conceived."
DiGerolamo said state legislators "did not contemplate the impact this will have on the law enforcement community and the public. Releasing people from jail early, basically usurping the courts and treating violent crimes as petty offenses only serves to endanger the public."
Without "significant funding to the law enforcement community, in particular police and the DA's office, we will not have the staffing or resources to maintain the existing low level crime rates," DiGerolamo said.
In Suffolk, the district attorney's office has funding for 47 new positions to deal with the state law. The office has created a new intake bureau to help collect and process evidence more quickly to meet the 15-day discovery deadline. The new bureau will be staffed 24 hours per day, seven days a week, officials said.
Sini said the additional personnel along with new technology will help his office communicate with the 29 other municipal police departments in Suffolk, and the county medical examiner's office.
The Bellone administration "will carefully monitor the implementation of these reforms while investing what is necessary to make them work," spokesman Jason Elan said.
In Nassau, the $3.9 million in next year's budget to help county agencies comply with the bail reform laws includes $890,000 for a new Office of Crime Victim Advocates, and $2.8 million to fund new training, personnel and technology for the district attorney and the Department of Probation.
The bulk of the new hires will be in the Nassau district attorney's office, which will get 30 new positions.
"There are a lot of moving pieces here so we can hit the ground running,” said Singas, who won reelection in November. “We’re not waiting until Jan. 1, but there are things we can’t anticipate," such as working with smaller municipal police departments to ensure timely collection of evidence.
"It’s an enormous undertaking,” Singas said.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said her "number one focus is keeping crime at historic lows, protecting residents, and enforcing the law."
Curran, a Democrat, said the county is taking "a proactive approach — we will be ready."
In response to the new state laws, majority Republicans on the Nassau County Legislature in October amended Curran's proposed budget to create the crime victims office. Employees will help provide legal assistance to victims and witnesses of crimes in Nassau County.
Nonetheless, legislative Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) has called for repeal of the new state laws, citing the cost burden on the county to keep the public safe.
"The so-called Criminal Justice Reform will release dangerous criminals in our neighborhoods, make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain convictions and leave crime victims vulnerable to new rights granted to accused criminals," Nicolello said.
"Make no mistake, while this is termed a 'reform,' it is an extreme, radical measure that is the result of the one-party dominance by the Democrat Party in Albany," Nicolello said.
Mike Murphy, spokesman for majority State Senate Democrats, said the criminal justice changes will "save taxpayer money, improve monitoring and oversight for suspects of low-level crimes, protect New Yorkers’ rights, and keep our communities safe. As with other initiatives, we will continue to monitor implementation to ensure these reforms fulfill our goals."
With Rachelle Blidner
NEW YORK BAIL REFORM
Key components of the new state criminal justice law taking effect Jan. 1:
- Bail: Eliminates cash bail for most defendants to ensure an individual’s ability to make bail is no longer the determining factor for pretrial detention of defendants who are awaiting their day in court.
- Discovery: Requires the prosecution and defense to share all information in their possession well in advance of trial and enables defendants to review evidence the prosecution possesses before pleading guilty to a crime.
Source: Office of the governor