Alfonse D'Amato

Send a message to Albany to fix bad criminal justice laws

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Of all the columns I’ve written for the Heralds, none has generated more vigorous comment than my last one, “Criminals’ early release threatens public safety,” in the Dec. 12-18 issue. People have reached out to me to share their concern and outrage at the seriously flawed criminal justice legislation that was buried deep in the 2018 state budget.

This new law is so flawed that it demands correction in the upcoming legislative session. But the only thing that’s going to move the politicians in Albany to fix this mistake is for the public to rise up, speak out, and demand it!

Elected officials, including mayors, judges, district attorneys and law enforcement authorities, are all legitimately worried about the effect the law will have on public safety, along with the enormous cost and administrative burdens it will impose on an already badly stretched criminal justice system. The changes include several objectionable provisions that will force judges to grant criminals early release by severely limiting judicial discretion in setting bail. They also confer on criminal defendants broad new discovery power to potentially stymie investigations and intimidate both victims and witnesses.

Let’s start with the coming early-release fiasco. Communities across New York state face the imminent release of thousands of defendants. Bail will still be required for all violent felonies and certain nonviolent felonies, but in Nassau and Suffolk counties, hundreds of prisoners will be let out of jail. In New York City, thousands more may be released. And in the future, fewer people who are arrested will face detention under new “bail reforms” that severely limit judges’ discretion in setting bail to keep criminals off the street and assure they will show up for trial.

There’s a groundswell of opposition to these poorly conceived “reforms.” Legislators across the state are feeling the heat for passing such major criminal law changes in the dead of night at the hurried end of the last legislative session. You can be sure most weren’t fully informed about what the changes meant, and didn’t have a real opportunity to examine or challenge them. That’s the way questionable legislation is deliberately passed in Albany, without giving the public the opportunity to weigh in and express legitimate concerns.

But as the upcoming state legislative session approaches in Albany, there’s something we can all do. A bipartisan bill (Senate Bill 6861) has been introduced to fix this bad law “for defendants who pose a threat to public safety, to allow greater judicial discretion in setting a securing order with respect to a defendant’s prior felony convictions, failure to make an appearance in court, or subsequent arrests while awaiting trial” (bit.ly/364FXHs). If that sounds as reasonable to you as it does to me, let your state legislators know you support the bill and want it considered — and passed — when the Legislature reconvenes this month.

Unfortunately, as bad as the ill-advised bail law changes are, there are equally worse provisions in the so-called criminal justice reforms that could paralyze justice for victims of crime and witnesses. These changes in the discovery-before-trial procedures would allow defendants to demand detailed personal information on victims’ and witnesses’ identities, including photos, home addresses and electronic records. Imagine a victim of a burglary being forced to turn over pictures of the inside of a home, cell phone numbers and data to a defendant while that defendant is likely out on the street under the drastically loosened new bail law. Or a witness to a crime who is forced to provide his or her identity and personal information even before a trial has begun. This is a dangerous prescription for terrorizing victims and witnesses, suppressing justice, and rewarding criminals.

But help may be on the way to fix this bad law. Local officials across the state are standing up and rallying in opposition to these pre-trial gifts to criminal defendants. The respected and influential New York Conference of Mayors — representing mayors of both parties around the state — has taken a strong stance against the new law, citing both the danger to the public and the enormous cost this law, essentially an unfunded mandate, would impose on localities.

Let’s hope that even in this era of one-party rule in Albany, where only the most vociferously anti-law enforcement powers seem to have sway, that voices of reason will prevail, and these bad laws will be fixed.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.