CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Two legislators whose districts include much of Saratoga County Tuesday called for a one-year moratorium on new legislation that will limit the setting of monetary bail for defendants in criminal trials.
The new Bail and Discovery Reform legislation that was passed into law earlier this year as part of the state budget will also alter procedural rules governing judicial discovery in criminal cases. Discovery is the process through which prosecutors turn over evidence to someone accused of a crime so they can mount a capable defense.
Both pieces of legislation take effect Jan. 1.
Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, and Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, announced they will sponsor bills in their appropriate legislative houses calling for a one-year moratorium on the bail-reform legislation so statewide hearings can be held in all 10 regions of the state. They are asking their fellow legislators to agree to a special legislative session prior to Jan. 1 to give the public, law enforcement, and district attorneys’ offices across the state a chance to review, discuss, and reform the legislation.
Tedisco came down hardest on what he sees as many unintended consequences of the legislation.
“We’re calling this the Press the Pause Button and be Reflective,” Tedisco said. “Do something you didn’t do on something that’s probably one of the most important issues that are pending for our constituents. It’s what we take the oath of office for, to put forward laws and legislation to keep them safe and utilize experts in the field to help us do that. And that didn’t happen.”
Tedisco sees the legislation as being lopsided in favor of those who have committed crimes.
Under the new legislation defendants charged with having committed crimes like manslaughter in the second degree, aggravated vehicular homicide, criminally negligent homicide, assault in the third degree, aggravated vehicular assault, making a terroristic threat, or promoting or possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child must be released from custody without bail.
Tedisco and Walsh’s bill seeks to remove those crimes and 24 others from the legislation and allow the court system to function as it has in the past with judges deciding whether monetary bail is appropriate in each individual case.
“As of Jan. 1 the scales of justice will be balanced in favor of the perpetrators and against the victims, thereby creating a criminal bill of rights and effectively issuing a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Tedisco said.
Saying the legislation was passed in the dead of night as part of the state’s budget, Tedisco said he doubted that any district attorney or law enforcement official had been consulted. He noted that its supporters told him it had to be done because the judicial system was out of balance.
“You don’t balance a [judicial] system and a public safety system by discriminating against the victims and finding a weighted system for the accused, the criminals, and the predators who prey upon them. And that’s exactly what this is going to do on April 1,” he said. “It’s not an adjustment or a balance. This was justice rushed through the New York State Legislature.”
In her remarks, Walsh said if the legislation goes into effect it will make a complete change to a judicial system she has come to know in nearly 30 years of working as an attorney in the state.
“The criminal laws for bail and discovery are being completely repealed and completely replaced,” she said. “We had a criminal justice panel that met for two years and came out with recommendations and now what we got in this legislation went far further than what the panel was looking for. By passing this we’re taking away the discretion of the judiciary. Public safety will be affected.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spokesman, Jason Conwall, said in a statement upon being informed of Tedisco and Walsh’s request for a moratorium, “Republican Governor Chis Christie passed essentially the same bail reform laws years ago in New Jersey and their state reports have shown that overall crime has decreased with no statistically significant changes regarding re-offenses or court appearances. Politicians taking cues from [President] Trump's cheap fear-mongering should knock it off and focus on the facts."
Joining Tedisco and Walsh at the announcement were Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen, Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo and Regina and Michael Stewart, the parents of Christopher Stewart, who was killed in a car crash caused by a drunk and drugged driver in 2012.
Heggen described how the changes to the rules of discovery were affecting her staff as they prepared for the implementation on Jan. 1. She wondered how those same offices in much smaller municipalities could come close to being ready.
“These reforms impose on prosecutors an unrealistic, exponential increase in the speed and amount of information required to be provided without any resources to support such changes,” she said. “Criminal cases are not the result of a cookie-cutter. We should give judges discretion on setting bail. With this legislation, the unique circumstances of each case is gone.”
In a statement, her counterpart in Schenectady County, District Attorney Robert Carney, agreed the reforms were enacted in the budget without any input from the professionals who work in the criminal justice system.
“Although we are planning for these changes,” he wrote. “I question our ability to meet these new mandates with the resources and limited time left before they take effect. A one-year moratorium to study these impacts and to educate New Yorkers about how these laws will affect everyone is an excellent idea.”
Zurlo lent his support to the moratorium, saying the state should have done a better job getting input from law enforcement. He noted that his department has 300 warrants outstanding right now on defendants in criminal cases.
In separate sets of remarks on the impending enactment of the legislation, the Stewarts joined the call for a moratorium.
Regina Stewart noted that had the car crash that killed her son happened with the new legislation in effect the perpetrator would have been ticketed with no bail and asked to return to court.
“Let’s take a pause,” she said. “We as victims don’t have it all figured out. We don’t have our heads around it.”
Michael Stewart agreed.
“Common sense changes are all we are asking for,” he said.