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Judges say that Brooklyn courts will be ready for criminal justice reform changes

December 4, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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Three of the borough’s top Criminal Court judges were in attendance at the Kings County Criminal Bar Association (KCCBA) meeting on Tuesday to talk about the many upcoming changes to the criminal justice system that will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

While the judges’ remarks often lacked specifics, and some answers were ‘we will see,’ they said they were confident that there will be no major issues that come up that the local courts won’t be able to handle.

“We have more programs and social services that you can shake a stick at in Brooklyn,” said Hon. Michael Yavinsky, supervising judge for the Brooklyn Criminal Court. “We’re ahead of the curve. When you talk to judges upstate or out west, they just get angry and don’t know what you’re talking about, but we’re in good shape.

“The DA’s Office has changed their criminal court bail practice,” Yavinsky said. “They’re consenting to release at a level that is unprecedented in the history of the New York City Criminal Court, for sure.”

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Judge Yavinsky was joined by Hon. Matthew D’Emic, the administrative judge for the Kings County Supreme Court, Criminal Term, and Hon. Dineen Riviezzo, who is a member of Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform.

The three gave a continuing legal education seminar entitled “Bail & Discovery Reform: A View from the Bench” in front of over 100 members of the KCCBA. The group’s president said the robust turnout for the meeting was a sign of how major the recent criminal justice reforms have been.

“This is like nothing that we’ve seen,” said KCCBA President Christopher Wright. “In my 20 years practicing criminal defense, we’ve never seen anything like what is coming in 2020.”

One issue that Justice D’Emic brought up as one of his main concerns was the lack of judges. Four judges are expected to retire from his court by the end of the year and so far, he has received no commitment from the Office of Court Administration that they will be replaced.

“At this point, we could be down to about 21 judges where my predecessors had 36,” Justice D’Emic said. “I’m not envisioning Armageddon or anything of a disaster. It’ll self-correct and we’ll figure it all out.”

Two of the retiring judges, Hon. Martin Murphy and Hon. William Miller, handle the TAP parts, which receive nearly all arraignment cases. Stepping in to fill their shoes will be Judge Riviezzo and Hon. Matthew Sciarrino.

Justice D’Emic said that court personnel have already begun to identify cases that will be affected by the new bail rules and have given a list of those cases to judges. They have even begun to encourage judges to follow the new bail rules prior to their official implementation in January.

Judge Riviezzo has been involved, along with Hon. Daniel Conviser and Paul McDonald, counsel for the Office of Court Administration, in training judges and court employees on the new rules. They have made recommendations to Hon. Lawrence Marks, the chief administrative judge for the state, and have encouraged lawyers to continue to point out pinch points in the new system so they can take them back to OCA.

With an increased number of people being released prior to trial, some district attorneys from around the state have suggested that they will begin asking for orders of protection in every single case, so one issue that is expected to come up is how to handle the increase in appeals. Judge Riviezzo said that she, Judge Conviser and McDonald have suggested that the Appellate Division and Appellate Term come up with a unified way of hearing all appeals on orders of protection.

“We’re training judges … A lot of things will end up being litigated,” Judge Riviezzo said. “We’ve been encouraging judges to write opinions when they can in order to share their [reasoning] with our bench as we decide some of these issues on a first impression. We have to balance the rights of the defense to put on their defense with the privacy rights of the victims. How are we going to do that? What is it going to look like?”

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