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My view: Legal reforms will make New York a more just state

Bail reform in New York

Shannon Wong

People are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. This year, lawmakers in Albany passed important pretrial reforms intended to make this principle closer to a reality in New York.

But now opponents of the reforms, led by district attorneys, are fighting this progress. They are using scare tactics and fear-mongering to frighten New Yorkers into believing – without evidence – that these changes will make us less safe.

These reforms will make our state fairer, without impeding public safety.

Beginning next year, under a new bail law, people accused of most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses will not be held on cash bail. The law moves us closer to recognizing that nobody should be locked up because of how much money they have in their bank accounts.

Today, under the current bail laws, thousands of New Yorkers – including many in the Hudson Valley – are in jail even though they haven’t been convicted of anything. They are disproportionately people of color, and many are kept behind bars on bail of a few hundred dollars for minor offenses.

This is not only unfair, it also undermines public safety. Research indicates that detaining people pretrial actually raises the risk to public safety. That’s because pretrial detention increases the chance of someone committing a crime once they are eventually released.

We should be investing in job creation, youth services and substance abuse and mental health programs that will make our communities safer and more prosperous. Mass incarceration will not solve our problems.

The new law moves us closer to recognizing this, while preserving judges’ discretion to decide what steps are needed to make sure a person returns to court.

Along with bail reform, lawmakers also passed legislation that will overhaul our state’s discovery law. Under the current statute, prosecutors are allowed to withhold important evidence from defendants, even up to the day before their trial. In many cases, this evidence helps prove defendants’ innocence.

Roughly 96 percent of criminal convictions statewide are resolved through plea deals, and under current law New York prosecutors are not required to turn over evidence prior to any plea bargain. That means many people plead guilty just to get out of jail before they even see the evidence against them.

The new law requires that defendants get to see the evidence in their case promptly. This reform should help prevent wrongful convictions and allow people accused of crimes to make informed decisions about their cases.

The federal government and most states long ago reformed their criminal discovery rules, giving defendants broad, early access to evidence. No state that has done so has ever gone back.

We all want our communities to be safe. But the efforts by DAs and others to erase the progress we’ve made are not about public safety. They are about maintaining a system in which people who have money are set free and people who don’t get locked up. And they are about clinging to a discovery policy under which the rights to a fair trial and to see the evidence against you does not exist.

New York cannot afford to reverse course.

This piece originally appeared on Times Herald-Record

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