ALBANY — A key plank of lefty-led criminal justice reforms has made New Yorkers less safe by leading to dropped charges against accused criminals from Montauk to Buffalo because prosecutors are being buried in paperwork demands that cannot be met.
Prosecutors detailed the law-and-order nightmare at a legislative budget hearing in Albany, revealing to the public how so-called discovery reform is eroding local systems of justice.
“I cannot stress the importance of funding for additional staff, staff training, updated technology and cloud storage, as well as other costs related to the overhaul of New York State’s discovery laws,” J. Anthony Jordan, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, testified to lawmakers Tuesday.
“The number of documents and the amount of electronic discovery could be 20 to 30 times greater than it was in 2019,” he warned.
Jordan’s testimony adds to growing pressure on Albany Democrats to overhaul the 2019 discovery reforms as well as controversial bail limits through the state budget due April 1.
Under the discovery changes, prosecutors must now turn over all evidence related to alleged felonies and misdemeanors within 20 to 35 days of arraignments.
That has led to staffing and funding challenges for district attorneys across the state to get documents ready for defense lawyers, whether that means processing police body camera footage, redacting personal information from medical records, or blurring out bystanders in surveillance footage.
“It has been estimated that for every 100 body-worn cameras on the street, a district attorney’s office needs one additional staff member, without even considering costs related to storage,” Jordan said.
“Video files are voluminous, and processing those files translates into a need for a 25% increase in staff, including investigators, [assistant district attorneys], IT staff and others.”
The deluge of documents has fueled a surge in dropped charges, with the rate of cases dismissed in New York City rising from 44% in 2019 to 69% in mid-October 2021, according to a recent report by the Manhattan Institute.
Gov. Kathy Hochul did not propose any significant changes to discovery rules in the budget proposal she unveiled Feb. 1
But the newly-elected governor is proposing $52 million in new funding to help district attorneys comply with discovery requirements alongside an additional $40 million to help those outside New York City hire hundreds of additional prosecutors.
Defense attorneys spoke up for controversial criminal justice reforms like the discovery changes at the Tuesday hearing while adding that they were “shocked” that they were not getting a similar level of funding.
“I would like to point out that a large percentage of the clients we serve and represent are black and brown people who are disproportionately represented in the systems within which we work,” Lisa Schreibersdorf, of Brooklyn Defenders Services told lawmakers in her testimony. “Not only do we fight for each individual client to achieve the best outcome in their case, but we also work to change the laws that contribute to unfairness and racial inequity.”
But Jordan highlighted how the resumption of jury trials following pandemic shutdowns has created a uniquely dire situation for DAs that must get resolved in the state budget due April 1.
“As we tackled the COVID backlog, and increase in criminal activity, the burdens in discovery compliance has been recognized especially with [assistant district attorneys] return to covering in-person court appearances. This has triggered an immediate, ongoing, permanent, and significant need for funding for additional staff,” he said.