Editorial

Criminal justice reform must be tweaked

Posted

While state Democratic lawmakers managed to pass crucial legislation in their first year of controlling both houses of the State Legislature, they must work to tweak a controversial criminal justice law in Year Two.

Judges, law enforcement officials and state legislators have all pointed out flaws in the bail-reform bill that took effect Jan. 1. For starters, it abolished bail for what the bill’s sponsors have described as minor crimes — misdemeanors and non-violent felonies — without enabling judges to consider whether the defendants who appear before them pose a threat to public safety. Judges only have discretion in setting bail on charges that include a handful of violent crimes and if the suspect is deemed a flight risk. If someone repeats a non-violent crime, they can be caught, released, commit another crime, and get caught and be released again.

With a parade of defendants, including those accused of drunken drivers, escaping jail time under the bill, it has quickly become clear that it needs to be amended.

The new law also included a change to the rules for pretrial discovery, in which prosecutors let the defense know what evidence they have ahead of a trial. The prosecution now must hand over everything within 15 days of filing charges, which has caused a logistical and financial headache for law enforcement agencies and district attorneys’ offices.

Under the new law, defense lawyers will be given information on witnesses, 911 callers and victims, and can hand the information over to their clients, so they know who might testify against them and where they live long before the trial begins. This creates a safety risk for witnesses to a crime.

A year ago, we wrote about how Democrats had to learn from the mistakes they made the last time they had majority control of the Legislature, in 2008. Back then, a controversial commuter tax bill, which charged businesses, nonprofit agencies, local governments and school districts 34 cents on every $100 of payroll, led to controversy. By 2010, Republicans had once again gained control of the Senate, in large part due to that measure.

While the first year of Democratic control of the Legislature has seen much progress, we hope for another year of forward movement, which includes tweaking this crime legislation.