FULTON – At his quarterly Third ward meeting last night, Thursday, Feb.13, Common Councilor Don Patrick Jr. invited a panel of local officials to speak to residents of Fulton about the recent Bail Reform across the state.
Held in the cafeteria of Lanigan Elementary School, Fulton Mayor Deana Micheals, Oswego County Legislator Terry Wilbur (representing Assemblyman Will Barclay), Jim Thomas (representing Senator Patty Ritchie), District Attorney Greg Oakes, and Fulton Police Chief Craig Westbrook discussed how Bail Reform and Discovery Reform have impacted the area since they were put in place Jan. 1.
“The safety of the city of Fulton is the priority and regardless of all these hurdles we have in front of us, we are continuing to work together to meet on a regular basis to make sure we are always placing the safety of Fulton at the top of our list,” Michaels said.
The panel at last night’s meeting agreed that the details of neither reforms are practical and hope for it to be changed.
Wilbur said Assemblyman Barclay has been fighting against Bail Reform.
“When judges sit on a bench and don’t have any discretion anymore to protect us as citizens, we have a problem,” Wilbur said. “There are two bills that were introduced in the Assembly that [Minority Leader Barclay] is fully supporting. One was to put a pause on all of this and go forward with changes; the other one was to completely undo everything.”
Thomas said Senator Ritchie is also fighting against the law, which she had voted against.
Oakes said both Barclay’s and Ritchie’s offices have reached out to the DA’s office to get his perspective on the law. He said as it is right now, the law is dangerous, although not for 100% of the cases.
“There was a need for reform; there were individuals who because they’re impoverished, because they didn’t have the means to post bail, would sometimes sit in our jail, quite literally on bail of $50 or $100,” Oakes said.
Oakes said judges should have discretion to set bail to prevent repeat offenders from committing crimes again. He hopes for legislation to put a pin in Bail Reform to give it time to create a better law that is more fair to the defendant, the community and the justice system.
He said the population in the Oswego County jail has greatly decreased, but it still costs the same to light it and heat it.
He also said Discovery Reform imposes too many obligations on law enforcement and prosecutors, tying up their time with more administrative duties.
Oakes said with this law, it requires any evidence and documents in a case to be sent to the defense within 15 days of arraignment.
“Quite frankly, to try and do that in that short period of time is impractical and unreasonable,” Oakes said.
This includes police officer body camera video, police reports, 911 calls, radio transmissions between officers, decision on which witnesses to call, decision on which items to use as exhibits and anything that relates to a case, even if it is unlikely to make it to trial.
“That’s pulling 911 operators away from taking calls for actual emergencies to do bureaucratic work that really doesn’t enhance a case or add value to a case,” Oakes said.
He said last year Oswego County had about 770 felony arrests, 2,200 misdemeanor arrests, 300-400 disorderly conduct, and about 18,000 traffic tickets.
Oakes said there are not enough prosecutors and defense attorneys in the county to keep up with the heavier workload. He said other DAs offices are being impacted by this as well and Jefferson County has already lost four out of their 10 ADAs. One of his ADAs also plans to leave due to the work burnout.
“It’s straining a system that’s already under a lot of pressure,” Oakes said.
Westbrook said the biggest hurdle for the Fulton Police Department is Discovery Reform because of the time it takes to gather all of the items needed. He said it will have an effect on even low-level violations.
Westbrook said 90% of the time the police department deals with the same 10% of the Fulton population.
“We’re still going to continue to arrest people; we’re still going to continue investigating incidents,” Westbrook said. “Unfortunately the rules have changed a bit. As long as they are what they are, you’re going to see people [who had been recently arrested] walking free sooner than you normally would.”
Michaels said the police department is struggling to find new officers. They had wanted to hire seven new people and only found four.
In the second half of the meeting, members of the public asked further questions and generally expressed their concerns with the recent laws.
Following the discussion, Councilor Patrick thanked the panel for providing their insight and welcomed the public to attend his next quarterly meeting in a few months at Lanigan Elementary, time and date TBD.
What is Bail Reform?
According to New York state’s government website, “As part of groundbreaking legislation in the FY 2020 Enacted Budget, New York’s bail system will be dramatically transformed, significantly reducing the number of people held in jail prior to their trial. Specifically, cash bail will be eliminated for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, alongside a new requirement that police officers must issue desk appearance tickets to most people charged with misdemeanors and Class E felonies, rather than making a custodial arrest. Together, these reforms will ensure the vast majority – approximately 90% – of cases where people are charged, but not yet convicted of a crime, will remain out of jail before their day in court.”
What is Discovery Reform?
According to New York state’s government website, “To overhaul New York’s antiquated discovery process by which prosecutors could withhold basic evidence until the day the trial begins, legislation included in the FY 2020 Enacted Budget will require that both prosecutors and defendants share all information in their possession well in advance of trial. Defendants will also be allowed the opportunity to review whatever evidence is in the prosecution’s possession prior to pleading guilty to a crime. Prosecutors will be required to provide the defense with discoverable information and materials within 15 days of arraignment. In addition, the legislation will ensure that victims and witnesses are protected from intimidation and other forms of coercion by providing prosecutors with the ability to petition a court for a protective order, shielding identifying information when necessary to ensure the safety of witnesses and the sanctity of the judicial process.”