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Some North Country leaders oppose New York bail reform

January 3, 2020
By AARON CERBONE - For the News ( , Lake Placid News

Bail reform came to New York on Wednesday, Jan. 1, but some law enforcement, courts and politicians say it is bringing side effects that could mean trouble for the legal system.

They are mostly worried about the uncertainty of what these changes will result in. There is speculation among local police and judges that this reform may negatively impact the victims of crime or even lead to a mass exodus of judges around the state retiring from their positions.

The main complaints have been that the reform leaves many specific situations up to be decided by case law, that it loosens bail on too many types of charges and that the state passed this reform without consulting experts in the field first.

"I don't think you'll talk to anybody who is involved in criminal justice that doesn't think that there could be some reform," said Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill, who runs the county's jail. "We needed some reform, but I think they've just gone way too far."

The main change the law makes is eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and class E felonies. This means when someone is arrested on one of these more than 400 criminal charges, instead of awaiting trial in jail or paying bail to be free until trial, the person charged will be released with an appearance ticket to await trial at home, regardless of whether they can afford bail.

There are exceptions for many categories of violent crimes, but some say these are not enough.


Why it was done

The reason for this law, according to the state Senate, is to "reduce unnecessary pretrial incarceration and improve equity and fairness in the criminal justice system."

Bail was determined to unfairly affect the poor more than the wealthy.

The idea of bail reform received attention in 2015 when Kalief Browder, who at the age of 16 spent three years in Rikers Island, the New York City jail, killed himself, saying his experience in the prison and in solitary confinement had "mentally scarred" him. He was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack and was never convicted of a crime. His family could not afford his initial $3,000 bail, and after they raised the money, his bail was denied.

Two local police leaders agreed there were changes needed in the bail system, but they also said they don't think the law that was passed is the best way to make those changes.

Mulverhill said that if bail drives people awaiting trial into debt or keeps them in jail because they cannot afford it, it is not a fair system.

"On the other hand, you've completely taken away from the local judges the ability to put (away) people who may be a danger," Mulverhill said. "I guess there needed to be something done with the bail reform," Tupper Lake village police Chief Eric Proulx said. "A lot of impoverished people were put in jail for minor bail amounts that they couldn't afford."

He said bail wasn't used as a punishment, rather a way to secure an appearance in court, but it had problems.

"I read that people were rotting in jail waiting for their cases to be heard in the system," Proulx said.

"They took it way too far," Tupper Lake village Judge Chris Delair said. "(But) I understand what they were trying to do."


How it was created

Delair and Tupper Lake village court Clerk Bridgette LaPierre attended a bail reform training in early December and told the Tupper Lake village board what they learned, which, by their account, was not much.

"We came back discouraged," LaPierre said.

"The state is less prepared than we are for this," Delair said.

Delair and Proulx said courts and police were not consulted before the legislation was passed. The bill was passed as part of the state 2020 budget, without discussion on the floor or lobbyist input.

Proulx said police leaders, district attorneys and public defenders should have met with legislators to hash out the details.

State Assemblyman Dan Stec has asked for the implementation of the bail laws to be halted, and state Sen. Betty Little said she hopes there will be outcry and that the state will amend the law. Both are Republicans from Queensbury.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, wrote a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying, "After hearing from multiple district attorneys from across the state and many local elected officials, I urge Governor Cuomo to put forward reforms to be considered immediately in this upcoming legislative session."


Franklin County Jail

Mulverhill said the Franklin County jail he runs houses an average of 70 to 80 inmates a day, and that the bail reform will likely bring that number down by 20 to 25. He said the inmates who are at the jail will be there for longer terms, more likely serving shorter sentences than awaiting trial.

Mulverhill also said he is looking at the jail's mental health and substance abuse programs. Because inmates will be there mostly only after sentencing, they will not have the same opportunities to use those programs.

Mulverhill said the changes will likely not cause many changes in terms of jail revenue - it does not produce much - and that the department may spend less on resources. However, the sheriff's department will also take a reduced role outside of the jail because of deputy cuts this coming year.

The county's 2020 budget eliminated two deputy positions, based on seniority, leaving six deputies in the department heading into the future. Mulverhill said the department will likely do fewer security provisions and not be able to check in with sex offenders as often.



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