Local state assemblymen decry criminal justice reforms
ALBION – Jan. 1 was the start of a series of criminal justice reforms that have made Orleans County and the state less safe, State Assembly members Steve Hawley and Michael Norris said on Friday during the annual Legislative Luncheon organized by the Chamber of Commerce.
The state’s bail reform no longer allows local judges to set bail for many crimes. In most cases, defendants are arraigned and given an appearance ticket for the next court date. The courts also now need to send defendants a reminder about the court date by text, email, a phone call or mail.
The state has also passed new discovery laws where law enforcement and the district attorney’s office need to turn over records in a case within 15 days after the arraignment, down from the previous 45 days. Those records include police reports, radio transmissions, body-worn and dash-cam video, laboratory test results and volumes of other materials and data related to prosecution.
Republicans in the State Assembly are pushing for the new rules to be “rescinded immediately,” Hawley, R-Batavia, told 100 people at the Legislative Luncheon.
The Assembly Republicans are planning news conferences around the state about the issue, and will highlight people given appearance tickets who then committed more crimes, when then should have been in jail.
“We’re not going to let the pressure up,” Hawley said. “This is wrong. This isn’t American.”
Assemblyman Michael Norris, R-Lockport, said the criminal justice reforms were enacted after the State Senate flipped to a Democratic majority last year. That party now controls the Senate, Assembly and has a Democratic governor.
“We need to send a message to the governor that upstate matters and we deserve a voice,” Norris said the luncheon. “In upstate, it can feel like we’re at the bottom of the barrel.”
Orleans County Sheriff Chris Bourke said the criminal justice changes have cut the county’s jail population nearly in half, to about 40 inmates right now. The jail usually was in the 70s for inmate population.
Bourke attended a four-day law enforcement conference last week. He said many of the leading law enforcement officials in the state believe there will be some balancing out with the changes, with the jails filling back up when people are sentenced for their crimes.
Nathan Pace, an attorney from Medina, served as moderator for the luncheon. He said jail often can provide critical support for people charged with crimes, getting them connected to mental health and drug addiction treatment. Now, more people will be given court appearance tickets, with the judges not having the discretion to set bail for many crimes.
“These dramatic reforms led by the governor, the State Assembly and State Senate are affecting our county,” Pace said. “The new reforms are so dangerous to our society. They are intended solely to protect the accused.”
Hawley said the criminal justice reforms are the latest push from Albany that he finds vexing. He opposed the SAFE Act with gun control, free college tuition for children of undocumented immigrants, driver’s licenses for undocumented, and voting rights for felons when they are released from prison.
“The beat goes on with this governor,” Hawley said. “I’m not sure his father would be so proud right now and he was pretty liberal.”
Hawley said he is also very concerned about the impact on businesses with the rising minimum wage. That is now $15 an hour in New York City and is moving to $12.50 in upstate. This year it’s $11.80 in most of upstate, including Orleans County, and will go to $12.50 on Dec. 31. It was $9.70 on Dec. 31, 2016.
“The effect on businesses, I think, will be devastating,” Hawley said. “It’s urban areas telling suburban and rural areas what to do with their businesses.”
Norris said the higher minimum wage will reduce businesses’ ability to invest in equipment and make other changes to stay competitive. He expects there will be fewer cashiers at stores, and higher prices for consumers.
“It impacts small businesses and their ability to move forward with that crippling wage,” Norris said.
The state also adopted overtime and collective bargaining rights for farm workers. They are now eligible for overtime after 60 hours in a week. Hawley said he expects it will result in less hours for farm workers, ultimately resulting in smaller paychecks for them.
Norris said state continues to have an out-migration that leads the country, with about 70,000 people annually fleeing the state’s borders, that is nearly double the Orleans County population of about 40,000 people.