Immediately after last year’s passage of transformational pretrial criminal justice reforms, and before any data could be analyzed to assess the efficacy of the new laws, a massive and sophisticated campaign was launched by many members of the law enforcement community to roll back the new laws.
Unfortunately, the recently passed New York State budget for fiscal year 2020-21 acquiesced to some of the fearmongering efforts by law enforcement with several roll backs to last year’s landmark laws that sought to correct bail and discovery practices, which had disproportionately harmed low-income people and people of color.
At a time of a pandemic when justice experts, public health advocates and many others are attempting to contain the spread of the virus in our jails — for the protection of the accused as well as correctional staff — the amendments to last year’s laws will increase the number of people, many innocent, who will be detained pre-trial. This is because numerous new crime categories, which are now cash bail-eligible, were added to the budget bill. Increased detention will also compel more guilty pleas from innocent people at a time when a public health emergency has severely curtailed access to the courts. The risk of innocent people pleading guilty is particularly heightened amidst this pandemic when every day in jail exponentially increases the risk that an accused person will contract a potentially fatal virus before they have their day in court.
Last year, Governor Cuomo and the legislature enacted reforms that drastically improved New York’s antiquated discovery laws, which had previously permitted the prosecution to withhold fundamental evidence to people accused of crimes up to the day of trial.
The current law, which went into effect on January 1, requires prosecutors to provide persons accused of crimes with critical information related to the charges against them, including evidence that could prove their innocence or otherwise result in a prompt dismissal of the charges. These changes also prevented people wrongly accused of crimes from pleading guilty without knowledge of critical information related to those charges, including people who were coerced into taking uninformed guilty pleas in order to be free from pretrial detention.
Given the devastating proposals to the discovery laws that were being considered, the Innocence Project commends lawmakers for retaining the fundamental components of the discovery reform law that was passed last year. While there had been discussion of allowing prosecutors to unilaterally limit information provided to the defense, lawmakers ultimately — and correctly — rejected this provision.
A comprehensive bail reform law, which also went into effect in January, limited the state’s ability to detain people — including innocent people accused of crimes — if they did not have the financial means to pay bail and face charges free in the community. The bail reform law also made substantial strides towards reducing racial bias in custody determinations. Those have now been rolled back.
The Innocence Project remains committed to working in coalition with many others, including exonerated advocates, so that every New Yorker achieves equal justice, regardless of the size of their bank account or the color of their skin.