A commission overseeing the conduct of New York's local prosecutors was signed into law on Thursday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a move that is being cheered by supporters of criminal justice reform but comes with reservations from district attorneys.
The approval of the bill comes as state lawmakers in recent years have approved a series of changes to the state's criminal justice system, including most recently a bill meant to keep people on parole from returning to prison based on technical violations.
But this is also not the first version of the bill creating the prosecutorial conduct commission to cross the governor's desk. A previous version of the commission was created by law in 2019 after negotiations involving the governor and the state Legislature; the state Supreme Court in January 2020 later declared the commission unconstitutional
The new measure approved and signed this week by Cuomo is meant to address the issues raised by the judge's opinion at the time.
"The prosecutors who serve New Yorkers every day in the state's court system should be held to the highest standards of conduct in the exercise of their duties," Governor Cuomo said in a statement. "This legislation improves the Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct's ability to more effectively oversee and discipline prosecutors to make our court system safer and fairer for all. New York's courts are critical to the functioning of government and the competent administration of justice, and this new law will bolster our ability to do both successfully."
The commission is meant to serve as a "fact-finding entity" and review complaints of misconduct that are then sent to an attorney grievance committee overseeing the prosecutor accused of misconduct.
"This new law makes clear that the relevant attorney grievance committee may then accept or reject the recommended sanction," said Sen. Jamaal Bailey. "Being a prosecutor is a calling, and we recognize the majority of them look to dispense justice fairly and equitably. This legislation will simply ensure that bad prosecutors are no longer allowed to withhold evidence or engage in other forms of misconduct not befitting the profession."
But the statewide association that represents local district attorneys in New York said while not opposed to oversight, the measure continues to have constitutional problems.
The group this week urged Cuomo to veto the legislation and recommended their own package of changes to the measure.
“What is apparent to our members, and we believe is clear to anyone upon examination of the current proposal, is that it will fail in its mission of holding prosecutors to the highest ethical standards, while simultaneously triggering many unintended results that will damage our criminal justice system and further erode the public's confidence in it, as well as in our ability to govern,” said Sandra Doorley, the Monroe County district attorney and the president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. “Prosecutorial misconduct is intolerable. New York State’s prosecutors want to work to help improve the attorney discipline system and prevent unethical behavior from taking place in our criminal justice system.”