As she begins her full term this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul has promised to tackle voter concerns around crime. A key plank on her public safety agenda is increasing funding for changes to how evidence is handled in criminal cases.
"We are not going to allow people to commit crimes and violate our laws and hurt other individuals," Hochul said last week after visiting the Albany Public Safety Building. "We’re finding many, many ways to address it."
Changes to the discovery process, says Albany County District Attorney David Soares, have created a major headache for local prosecutors. The problems can be as mundane as redactions to more complex like incompatible technology across multiple law enforcement agencies.
"It has literally changed the practice of criminal law all across the state," Soares said in an interview.
The changes require defendants receive faster access to evidence in a criminal case. But without funding, the law has strained resoucrces for law enforcement who must review each piece of evidence before it is turned over.
"That means within the first 30 days of your case where you should be speaking to victims, where you should be speaking to eyewitnesses and really getting a feel for your case, you’re spending more time generating information, gathering information, turning over information," Soares said.
Discovery changes, along with ending cash bail requirements for many criminal charges, has led to a rise in recidivism, Soares said.
"It complicates and clogs things, so the people who are truly out there, victims of crime, they want justice and they want justice rather quickly, all of that is delayed," he said.
And then there’s the toll taken on workers with an overwhelming mountain of paperwork, leading some to use weekend time to get the evidence process.
"The discovery reforms that were passed is the single reform that has driven more prosecutors and police out the door," Soares said.
Hochul is backing more funding for district attorney offices around New York to implement the changes, increasing spending from $12 million to $52 million. Democratic state Assemblyman Steve Otis is open to more funding.
"One thing we learned when we changed the discovery laws, is it takes more work, there are time tables and the criminal justice system needs resources to comply with that, get information to everybody who deserves it," Otis said.
But Republicans like Assemblyman Phil Palmesano believe the discovery changes should never have been made in the first place.
"It should have been done a long time ago," Palmesano said of the funding, "but there also should be more conversations with our district attorneys about these mandates causing problems with our criminal justice system."