Election 2019: Choose DA candidate who will carry out bail, discovery reforms
On Nov. 5, the people of Onondaga County will decide who will represent us as our district attorney.
This race doesn’t get the wall-to-wall coverage of a presidential contest, but voters shouldn’t let this election fly under their radar. District attorneys are one of the most powerful players in the criminal system. And the policies of mass incarceration and mass criminalization, which have been fueled by DA’s offices, have devastated communities in Onondaga County.
District attorneys have the power to decide things like who faces charges and for what crimes. They can recommend what sentences people serve and whether someone should be locked up or put in a diversion program that funnels them away from the criminal system.
The jail incarceration rate in our county is 348 people per 100,000 residents, much higher than the statewide jail incarceration rate of 190 per 100,000. Families have been torn apart and children are forced to grow up without their parents. Our economy suffers too, because when people are behind bars, they can’t provide for their loved ones or contribute to their community.
We face an incarceration crisis that demands our DA’s full attention. New York state has proven that imprisoning more people does not make us safer. The state’s prison population has shrunk by 20 percent over the last decade, and crime rates have dropped. But much more must be done, and our DA will play a major role in determining what happens next.
This year, for example, New York passed laws that will improve our state’s pretrial system. Our DA will be responsible for implementing these reforms in Onondaga. Unfortunately, many district attorneys, including current Onondaga County DA William Fitzpatrick, have resorted to fear-mongering over these reforms, insisting, without evidence, that they will put our safety at risk.
Beginning next year, people accused of most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses will not be held on cash bail. This measure moves our state closer to the understanding that nobody should be denied their freedom based solely on the size of their bank account. Right now, more than half the people locked up at the Onondaga Justice Center are legally innocent. Many are held on bail amounts of a few hundred dollars for minor offenses. In a vicious cycle, people who are poor are arrested for crimes of poverty, then thrown in jail simply because they don’t have the money to secure their freedom.
New York’s old bail system did not make us safer. Studies have shown that detaining someone pretrial actually raises the risk to public safety because pretrial detention increases the risk of someone committing a crime once they are eventually released. This is true regardless of the outcome of their case.
Another reform passed this year will overhaul our state’s discovery law, which for decades allowed prosecutors to withhold critical exculpatory evidence from defendants, even up to the day before their trial. The new statute will require that people accused of crimes get to see the evidence against them – or lack thereof – in a timely manner.
The law should make our criminal system fairer and help prevent innocent people from going to prison. But this will only happen if our DA follows the statute. The candidates for Onondaga DA should commit to faithfully implementing this reform, and to making sure everyone gets the due process to which they are entitled.
Beyond carrying out the new reforms, whomever wins this year’s election will also have an important voice in whether we make more progress toward changing the criminal system’s status quo. Last legislative session, for instance, DAs were some of the leading voices behind a successful campaign to stop the legalization of cannabis.
Thousands of people in Onondaga County have been arrested for offenses that a strong majority of New Yorkers agree should not exist. These arrests have a disproportionate impact on black Onondaga residents, who are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white neighbors. This is despite studies that show people use cannabis at similar rates.
Our next DA must not settle for half-measures. He should advocate for legislation like the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would legalize marijuana and make sure that the funds from cannabis sales flow into communities of color that have been devastated by decades of the failed war on drugs.
This is a critical election. We can’t settle for the current state of affairs. Voters should choose the candidate they think will usher in broad, systemic change and harness the immense power of the office to make Onondaga County more equitable, more just, and safer for everyone.
This piece originally appeared on Syracuse.com