Sweeping criminal justice reform begins in NY; local law enforcement remain skeptical

New York News

CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Colonie Police Lieutenant Bob Winn says his New Year started with an uncomfortable phone call to tell the Pioneer Bank teller that the man believed to have been the one that held him up during a robbery Friday isn’t behind bars anymore.

“You know he was scared during this whole thing, and he was held up by this individual, and we had to explain to them that, good news and bad news, we made an arrest, but he’s already back out on the streets,” Winn says.

Despite his court appearance Tuesday, a judge released 41-year-old Christopher Seamans, who has been convicted twice for a number of past bank robberies. Judge William Carter cited 2020 bail reform that took effect Wednesday.

“A lot of time the public will be like, well what? How did you just let that guy walk out? Well, we didn’t,” Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple says.

“Our department is very victim centered,” Winn added. “We’re here to bring their cases to justice; we’re here to bring them a sense of security. With this bail reform, it does take away a measure of safety.”

Both Lt. Winn and Sheriff Apple are skeptical of the new reform to remove bail requirements from around 400 offenses — all misdemeanors and some felonies. Plus, discovery reform that changes how their offices will need to prepare evidence the district attorney will then need to turn over to any defense attorney.

“We already have 1,000 warrants sitting in our warrant file right now. We expect that that’s probably going to go up with the bail reform, because there’s nothing. There’s no bail, there’s no bail bondsman, there’s no probation officer that’s making sure they are going to come to their next court date,” Lt. Winn explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

“We’ve reassigned four people. Some of these smaller police departments are pulling cops off the streets to have to do this. We have to pull a lot of body cameras, we have to pull a lot of audio down from the 911 system, get all of that back to the police department, who can get it to the DA,” Apple says of preparing his deputies for the discovery reform.

Amy Jones, the community organizer for Citizen Action of New York praises the new reforms, saying in a statement:

“Today, New Yorkers across the state are celebrating enactment of our new bail, discovery and speedy trial laws. People power, years of fierce advocacy and the resolve of our partners and elected allies have delivered a powerful blow to an injustice system that has criminalized race and poverty, destroyed lives and caged legally innocent people for generations. These reforms are long overdue, and help move us towards a “justice” system that lives up to its name. 

This day is especially meaningful to me, because I personally fought on the frontlines to pass these laws. I have also suffered behind bars because I couldn’t afford the price tag on my freedom. I have been coerced into plea deals without knowing about the evidence against me. I know what the human costs of pretrial injustice are – and so I know it’s no exaggeration to say that countless lives will be saved as a result of these new laws.

Mass incarceration has always been justified in the name of “public safety” – but we know from data and lived experience that bail and pretrial detention have never kept us safe. We also know that the old pretrial laws were weaponized against Black, Brown and poor people to maintain gross power imbalances and disparity in the system. The things that truly create safe and healthy communities are people being home with their children, keeping their homes, staying in school, earning money and remaining a part of community. The new pretrial laws help get us there.

To be clear, there is much more work to be done. But today, we commend the thousands of directly impacted people, advocates and New York’s elected leaders for taking this historic step towards justice.”

But Winn and Apple worry such sweeping legislation may not be the easy solution supporters hope for.

“I agree that there are poor people that stay in jail much longer than people who can afford an attorney. I run a jail; I see that all the time. We agree with changes, but we don’t agree with the level of changes that they went through,” says Apple. “This reform was made from behind closed doors, and it might have been nice for them to give us, law enforcement, the ones who deal with this every day, a seat at the table to discuss how the system could be improved, but that didn’t happen. Maybe it can happen now.”

“The people that we come in contact with are in crisis, but you can get help for gambling, you can get help for drug abuse, you can get help for anger management all while in jail waiting for trial or waiting for bail. That’s going to be eliminated, completely eliminated now. Crime, arrest, and release,” explains Winn.

“The simple reality is that society is safer when some of these offenders are behind bars. They’re also safer from themselves and can get the help they need with the services the jails provide,” he went on to say.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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