A new state law that takes effect in January will give people accused of crimes more tools to mount a defense in court. But the state’s District Attorneys say changes to what’s known as the discovery laws will be costly and hard to implement.
Under current law, defendants don’t have a right to see a prosecutor’s evidence against them until the trail begins. This includes police reports, recordings, or results of DNA tests - evidence that, in some cases, defendants may not see for months or even years.
Starting in 2020, under a new law passed by the Democratic-led state legislature and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, prosecutors must make that evidence available to defendants and their lawyers within 15 to 30 days.
Supporters of the change, including criminal justice advocacy groups, say some defendants have pleaded guilty to lesser crimes as part of plea deal, without knowing whether the prosecutor had a solid body of evidence against them or not.
But district attorneys in New York say it’s going to be costly - about $100 million - to hire staff and replace antiquated computer systems to comply with the law, so they are asking for more money.
“In my county, we have almost 40 different law enforcement agencies, they all have different computer systems,” said Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler, the head of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. “There’s no central link to the district attorney’s office.”
Hoovler says some courts meet just once a month, and one third of the judges are not attorneys.
“And now you are asking them to participate in a very complex process?” Hoovler asked.
Hoovler said without additional state money, the extra costs become an unfunded mandate that county property owners will pay through additional property taxes in a state that already has among the highest rates in the nation.
But, he said, DA’s will obey the law.
“Every DA in the state is going to try,” Hoovler said. “What you’ll see is that there are going to be difficulties.”
Governor Cuomo, speaking to reporters on November 6, said he already included $200 million dollars in additional aide to counties outside New York City in the current budget that can be used to comply with the new law.
“They’ve gotten a lot more funding, everybody always says they want more funding,” Cuomo said. “I get that."
Cuomo said there is a Medicaid shortfall, which could be as high as $2.9 billion next year. So, when asked directly if he would give the DA’s the additional $100 million, the governor answered, “No, I don’t think they need more funding."
Attorney General Tish James has also asked for more funding to help local prosecutors carry out the discovery law and other criminal justice changes, including bail reform. Her office did not return a request for comment.
The executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, Stephen Acquario, says that county budgets will be “impacted”, but the group is not able to quantify that right now.
“It may take several years to understand the full annualized impact of these reforms,” said Acquario, who said that county jails may also be impacted by the changes.