New task force announced to smooth rollout of criminal justice reform
After a tense hearing on Wednesday during which prosecutors and councilmembers criticized the Mayor’s Office for a “lack of leadership,” the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice announced Friday it will create a task force to smooth the implementation citywide of state-mandated criminal justice reform.
District attorneys from all five boroughs expressed major concerns at the hearing that they would be unable to meet a Jan. 1 deadline set by Albany to enact new processes intended to ensure swifter, fairer trial proceedings and reduce the number of people sent to city jails for minor crimes.
Prior to the creation of this task force, the mayor’s budget set aside no additional funding to help the city meet that deadline. The new unit is designed to assess and coordinate the needs of district attorneys in all five boroughs and the special narcotics prosecutor.
MOCJ said today’s announcement is not a response to the criticism expressed during Wednesday’s hearing, but that it was already in the works.
“In the weeks since landmark reforms were passed, our office has been actively leading planning on a daily basis with criminal justice system partners to ready the city for implementation,” Elizabeth Glazer, director of MOCJ, told the Brooklyn Eagle in a statement. “We are formalizing this work into a Criminal Justice Reform Implementation Task Force, which will streamline and evaluate system and resource needs by bringing together the many entities who play an important role in helping ensure smooth implementation of the reforms by Jan. 1, 2020.”
The state-ordered reforms, passed during the state budget proceedings and celebrated by progressive criminal justice activists, require that prosecutors turn over all evidence in criminal cases within 15 days of a defendant’s arraignment and dispose of cash bail in most misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases.
Councilmember Rory Lancman – who leads the City Council’s Justice Committee – told MOCJ on Wednesday he was worried that there was “no central driving force” preparing the city.
“It’s clear that the mayoral administration hasn’t shown any stewardship toward getting the city ready to implement these incredibly important new laws on Jan. 1,” Lancman told the Eagle Wednesday after the hearing.
He criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for not providing any funding to the DAs in his preliminary or executive budget to handle the reforms. “What was most alarming to me was the district attorneys’ frustration with a lack of leadership at City Hall.”
All five district attorneys — as well as the city’s special narcotics prosecutor — testified Wednesday that their offices were not equipped to implement the new laws, and that they need “significant additional resources” from the city to implement them.
Brooklyn District Attorney Gonzalez said he would need more lawyers, trial prep assistants, paralegals, messengers and revamped technology to get the job done before the new processes take effect in just over six months.
“These additional staffing and technology needs are absolutely critical for my office’s ability to comply with the new discovery and speedy trial laws,” Gonzalez testified.
The Brooklyn DA welcomed the announcement of the task force Friday.
“We welcome the creation of the task force and will work with the Mayor’s Office and other partners to ensure that needed resources will be provided and the implementation of these important reforms will be smooth,” said a spokesperson for the Brooklyn DA’s Office.
His office will also need new technology systems by Jan. 1, Gonzalez testified.
In certain cases where bail will no longer be applicable, the DA is considering using e-monitoring devices like ankle bracelets.
“Electronic monitoring is very expensive and currently we have no capacity in this regard. We simply don’t use it except in a handful of cases,” Gonzalez said.
To solve another tech need, a company presented a new system to Gonzalez’s office earlier this year that would allow defense attorneys to contact victims and witnesses in cases without giving out personal identifying information. The attorneys would log in to a secure online portal where they could speak with the witnesses and victims.
This tech would help the DA comply with a part of the new law that requires that defense counsel get sufficient contact information for witnesses and victims of crimes.
Gonzalez also testified that his office already turns over evidence upon receiving it, but the 15-day requirement under the new discovery law will be impossible to comply with without the cooperation of other city departments.
The NYPD, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and hospitals do not always provide DAs with paperwork and evidence within the 15-day time period, he said.
MOCJ’s new task force would be responsible for bringing all these departments together and determining what they all need to ensure that they are ready for 15-day discovery on Jan. 1. The task force will also determine the needed resources – including the new technology – and will create a structure to make sure all needs are “evaluated and streamlined in a consistent way,” according to a spokesperson for MOCJ.
All of the DA’s needs come with steep price tags – though on Wednesday, Gonzalez and the other DAs were unable to give Lancman exact figures of what they need in this year’s city budget, which will be finalized June 30.
On Wednesday, Lancman asked MOCJ’s general counsel, Susan Sommer, whether MOCJ would be able to come up with a number — whether it was in the millions or billions — needed for implementing the reforms in the city by June 30, to which he received no direct answer.
But Friday, he expressed cautious support for the new task force.
“We need the administration to make implementation of the state’s criminal justice reforms a priority, and the creation of a task force is a good start to address the litany of budgetary and logistical concerns prosecutors, public defenders and advocates raised at Wednesday’s hearing,” Lancman said.
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