Law enforcement warns of unintended consequences from criminal justice reform

Nov 21, 2019

Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty
Credit James Brown / WXXI

A number of law enforcement leaders joined forces in Rochester and statewide Thursday to ask Governor Andrew Cuomo to slow the state’s move toward criminal justice reform. It's part of a statewide show of force by the law enforcement community. One common concern expressed in Rochester was about discovery. 

Livingston County Sheriff Thomas Dougherty said his department makes many drug-related arrests on Interstate 390. One reform requires police agencies like his to process, test and turn over all evidence to defense attorneys within 15 days.

Several local sheriffs claim that trying to do that would stretch already thin resources. In the case of drug seizures, Dougherty said the 15-day mandate is impossible and that’s why Livingston County District Attorney Greg McCaffery asked him to stop roadside arrests starting in January.

“When he asked me to do that as sheriff, I believe I said, ‘absolutely not.’ But as we sorted through this complicated matter, it’s the only way as sheriff I can ensure that at some point they’re going to be held accountable,” said Dougherty.

Dougherty said if they charged someone and did not turn over all the evidence, the case would be thrown out. He says they plan to seize and process the drugs -- but let the suspects go, at least for now. 

The new laws also limit pretrial detentions and eliminates cash bail for nonviolent offenses, among other changes. 

Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts said that includes most drug offenses and vehicular manslaughter. 

“A driver’s charged with vehicular manslaughter. Under the new law, the driver would be arraigned and released, as vehicular manslaughter is technically a nonviolent crime,” said Virts.

During a news conference Thursday, Virts and other local law enforcement warned of possible unexpected consequences of ending cash bail. They were joined by Dean Lucas, a father whose son died in 2016 of a heroin overdose just after he was released from jail.

“He was taken to jail he was in jail. He was clean the entire time he was in,” said Lucas. “If he was just given a ticket to appear like in three months, I know exactly what he would have done. And if my son was here he’d tell you that the first thing he would have done is go back and buy and go use.”

In an interview with WXXI News on Wednesday, Monroe County Public Defender Timothy Donaher lauds efforts made by county sheriffs and other agencies to handle drug addiction in jail but says that shouldn't affect the new laws.

“I don’t think we should be changing the reforms or modifying the reforms to either mandate or give judges the discretion to incarcerate people with drug addiction or mental health issues if they’re otherwise eligible for release,” said Donaher.

Donaher is in favor of the reforms are needed. He said pretrial detentions in New York are increasingly separate and unequal.

“That was leading to a system of justice that had nothing to do with public safety. What we were doing is jailing people who couldn’t come up with bail,” said Donaher.

As for complaints about how the law was shaped, Genesee Valley NYCLU’s Ashley Gantt said many residents were involved with shaping the law.

“So while they weren’t at the table, their constituents are at the table, who voted them into office. And I would say their voice that their voice is just as important if not more important,” said Gantt.

To comply with the new laws, several counties in the region are planning to release inmates before New Year's Day because some courts are closed for the holidays. Sheriff Dougherty called it “the Christmas Purge.” The Monroe County Sheriff's Department says it plans on releasing about 200 inmates on January 1. 

The police agencies are hopeful that Governor Cuomo will pause the implementation to give them more time to prepare. The laws go into effect January 1.