New York’s elected leaders are engaged in a long-overdue conversation about criminal justice reform legislation to make our system more fair, transparent and efficient. As Long Island’s District Attorneys, we support these goals and remain committed to keeping crime in our communities at historic lows.
We need to overhaul New York’s bail system because no one should be in jail awaiting trial simply because they’re poor. We support the transition to cashless bail. However, reform legislation must include mechanisms that ensure dangerous defendants who pose a clear safety threat to victims or the public can be detained. In the federal system as well as in every state that has eliminated cash bail, the law provides avenues for courts to consider a defendant’s dangerousness, and New Yorkers deserve the same protection.
In the recent past, a significant percentage of murders on Long Island were committed by members of the MS-13 gang. Under a pending proposal, a judge would be forced to release an alleged gang member charged with conspiracy to commit murder back into the community. If that defendant violates an order of protection, the legislation would still mandate that he or she be released. And under pending bills, if an aggrieved school employee brought a rifle to work, and faced a charge of criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds, a prosecutor could not argue for pretrial detention. The authors of the legislation share our goals of fairness and public safety, but changes to current measures must safeguard against unintended consequences. As we take the right step to eliminate an unfair cash bail system, the law must provide means to detain dangerous defendants.
New York’s discovery laws, which detail how information must be shared before trial, also warrant reform. While our offices consistently share information more comprehensively and expeditiously than required by law, no defendant should face “trial by ambush.” However, any proposals that require prosecutors to share victim and witness contact information must be changed to guard against physical harm, harassment, and intimidation. Additionally, under a legislative proposal, crime lab technicians would have to sit for lengthy depositions, prosecutors would waste taxpayer resources producing documents even when a defendant wants to accept a plea deal, and new rigid discovery deadlines would be set in every case, no matter how complex. More funding and more flexibility would be required for these reforms to be achievable.
Some advocates have highlighted Texas’ discovery laws as a model, but Texas law prohibits defense attorneys from sharing victim and witness contact information with defendants or third parties, recognizing the perils of these disclosures. Victims of rape and sex abuse, witnesses and victims in gang cases, and elders who have been victimized by identity theft should not have to fear that their home address and contact information will be disclosed to those who caused them harm. There are proposals to allow defense counsel to communicate with consenting victims and witnesses using technology that shields their contact information, and these warrant serious consideration. We should expedite discovery in New York, but we must give victims and witnesses the protection they deserve.
The state legislature is considering other worthy reforms to ensure defendants receive a speedy trial, reduce immigration consequences of minor offenses, and reduce reincarceration for minor technical violations of parole. New Yorkers deserve comprehensive criminal justice reform this year that enhances fairness, avoids unfunded mandates, and allows us to continue the record drops in crime that we’ve seen in recent years.
We are grateful for the thoughtful consideration our Long Island state legislators are affording all proposals, and we look forward to continued dialogue. It’s time for action and it’s critical that we get this right.
Madeline Singas and Timothy Sini are, respectively, district attorneys for Nassau and Suffolk counties.