NYC Council’s Progressive Caucus supports discovery and speedy trial reforms

April 26, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Leading defender organizations have praised the Progressive Caucus of the City Council for its recent letter urging Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris to resist Gov. Kathy Hochul and local District Attorneys’ efforts to roll back New York’s discovery and speedy trial reforms, also known as “Kalief’s Law.”

“The attempt from Gov. Hochul and district attorneys to upend our state’s discovery laws is an affront to transparency and fairness, and worse, would lead to more New Yorkers languishing in dangerous and deadly jails for longer,” said Yung-Mi Lee, Legal Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.

“Fulfilling the goals of discovery reform requires resources, not legislative changes that will send us back to the era of the ‘Blindfold Law.’ We thank the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus for standing strong against rollbacks, and urge our state legislators to reject the governor’s and prosecutors’ efforts to weaken the law.”

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The Progressive Caucus has called on Albany lawmakers to allocate funding to both District Attorney and public defender offices to ensure that the 2019 reforms, which did not include funding provisions, can fulfill their intended purpose.

Before the 2019 reforms, New York’s discovery law was considered to be among the four most regressive in the country. Known as the “Blindfold Law,” the previous legislation disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic New Yorkers, hindering their ability to review evidence against them and leading to indefinite pretrial jailing, wrongful convictions, and numerous coerced pleas. The 2019 reform brought New York state in line with the rest of the country.

“This is a shameful last-minute effort from Gov. Hochul and local prosecutors to revert our state back to an era when evidence was hidden from the defense and our clients languished at Rikers Island for years at a time,” said Tina Luongo, Chief Attorney at The Legal Aid Society.

“Funding is the solution, not rollbacks, to ensure that these reforms live up to their full intended promise. The Legal Aid Society lauds the City Council’s Progressive Caucus for their advocacy on this issue, and we call on Albany lawmakers to hold the line against this 11th hour hijacking of the budget to gut these successful reforms.”

The prior law did not require prosecutors to gather all information and materials known to the police and other witnesses, nor were they required to disclose what they collected to the defense until the eve of trial. This allowed prosecutors to withhold material and delay obtaining it for months or years without consequences, further delaying trials and leaving accused individuals in limbo, often in dangerous jails.

The proposed changes are not “minor tweaks,” advocates said, and would require accused individuals to demand evidence or risk forfeiting their right to it, while enabling prosecutors to strategically avoid the risk of speedy trial dismissal without providing all evidence to the defense.

The Progressive Caucus’ letter highlights that changes to discovery rules without genuine input from both parties would result in further injustice, particularly in light of deadly jails and high attrition rates in both defense and prosecutor offices. The letter urges lawmakers to reject proposals to roll back “Kalief’s Law” and instead focus on providing funding to both prosecutors and defenders for technology and staffing upgrades, as well as pursuing evidence-based solutions in collaboration with all stakeholders.

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