The Bronx Is Broken, The Whole State Is Paying

T.E. McMorrow
A Bronx man held for 997 days without ever being granted a trial by the New York City Department of Correction because he could not make $2000 bail, and who eventually killed himself, was the impetus for the new series of criminal procedure laws which East End officials call an “unfunded mandate.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc sounded an alarm at the town board meeting November 19, an alarm shared by his fellow town supervisors and mayors across Suffolk County, when he called on the state legislature to suspend the massive, radical changes to the criminal procedure laws set to take effect January 1.

The new laws eliminate bail for almost all crimes, requires prosecutors to share all evidence with a defendant within 15 days of arraignment, and greatly shortens the time allowed before a case must be prosecuted.

Van Scoyoc had attended a special meeting of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association and East End police department brass. He told East Hampton Town Board members, “The overall support of the Suffolk County supervisors was to hold that law in abeyance.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman agrees. “It is an unfunded mandate,” Schneiderman said by phone November 22. It is going to cost towns and villages across the state hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of dollars to implement, he said.

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said Friday, “The legislation places enormous burdens on local police departments and is going to create a massive amount of work for departments across the state in order to adequately prosecute cases.”

The laws were passed through a backdoor, tacked onto the annual budget out of Albany this past spring. “This was not discussed on the floor” of the state legislature, Van Scoyoc said. “It was simply added to the budget. It just kind of swept right through without many of our representatives having a full understanding of, or at least debate on, the topic prior to being passed.”

The impetus for the new laws came, in part, from a case out of the Bronx, which was documented by both The New Yorker magazine and The New York Times. Jennifer Gonnerman of The New Yorker wrote a story about Kalief Browder. In 2010, days before his 17th birthday, Browder, who had a previous arrest, was accused of stealing another man’s backpack. Bail was set at $2000.

He remained on Rikers Island, most of the time in solitary confinement, for 997 days. Videos from the jail obtained by The New Yorker and the Times showed that Browder was beaten often by both guards and fellow inmates.

In 2013, the Bronx DA could not offer up the alleged victim, charges were dropped, and Browder was released. In 2015, the Times, which had previously chronicled the crumbling criminal justice system in the Bronx, reported on Browder’s suicide.

The case sparked outrage amongst New York legislators, with demands for radical change to the criminal procedure law. They got their way this past spring. Now, East End towns and villages will have to pay for manpower and equipment to cope with the new laws.

“There are going to be huge administrative burdens placed upon towns, and East Hampton is no exception,” Van Scoyoc said. Since most zoning code violations are classified as misdemeanor crimes, with the law changes, particularly regarding the sharing of evidence with a defendant following his arraignment, the town’s code enforcement division will be radically affected, as well.

“You can imagine the amount of additional work that various departments will have to take on in order to comply with this,” Van Scoyoc said.

Towns across the state have already passed their budgets. They now need to find more money. “The cost is not budgeted,” Schneiderman said of the coming changes.

“The timeliness issues were not well thought out and in many cases are not realistic,” Chief Sarlo said. “What amounts to a monumental shift in court case preparation is essentially an unfunded mandate.”

Schneiderman said he anticipates less officers on the streets, with more required to sit at desks to comply with the new laws.

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