DA Critiques Bail Reform Legislation

The Community Justice Coordinating Council held a meeting Wednesday with local organizations. Chautauqua County District Attorney used his time speaking to share his bleak outlook of the impending statewide bail reform. The council also spoke about ways the county can adapt to the recent change specifically focused on reducing recidivism. P-J photo by Jordan W. Patterson

Patrick Swanson is not confident in the recently approved bail reform legislation. In fact he’s “less than optimistic.”

Swanson, the Chautauqua County district attorney, informed the Community Justice Coordinating Council at Wednesday’s meeting about his pessimistic view of the reformed legal system and its potential ramifications.

“We’re about to experience a pretty massive shift in how pre-trial detention is managed,” he said to a table seating numerous advisors of county organizations involved in the court system.

Under the new law, most charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies are released under supervision (RUS).

However, state legislators recently introduced legislation that would provide more discretion for judges throughout the state. If passed, the range of crimes judges can set bail at would be increased.

The legislation, S.6407, has been sponsored by Sen. James Gaughran, D-Northport, and is co-sponsored by Monica Martinez, D-Brentwood, John Brooks, D-Seaford, Anna Kaplan, D-Great Neck, and Kevin Thomas, D-Levittown.

Swanson said the passing of such a bill would be “fantastic,” noting that it would give some discretion back to judges and expand the crimes that district attorney’s can apply for bail.

Swanson views the change that is removing judge discretion for certain crimes as a negative shift.

Increased recidivism, drug use, over doses and overall crime were all included in Swanson’s bleak outlook of the impending change beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

“It’s not just changing bail, it’s changing what everybody knows as our system,” Swanson said.

When the New York state executive budget was approved in April, it also passed certain court proceeding changes into law. Mainly, the range of crimes that a judge can set bail was diminished. Swanson said state legislators narrowed down the violent offenses the district attorney’s office can apply for bail on.

Swanson estimated that 80% of the county’s court appearances will be eligible for presumptive release or RUS, under the new law.

“Our pre-trial detention numbers are going to fall dramatically,” Swanson said. “I think in this county … we’re going to be around 12-15% of our offenses that are going to be eligible for bail.”

Recidivism, specifically with drug offenses, was one of Swanson’s primary concerns. With drug offenders, the district attorney said the council will need to consider new methods of offering support services when the law goes into effect next year.

“We are going to see a pretty seismic shift in our ability to treat recidivism in our state,” he said. “So many people are exposed to programming pre-trial right now. Unless we adjust what were are doing, those people aren’t going to be reached at all (next year).”

Swanson, speaking to county employees with decades of criminal justice experience, said the system will look “very different” from previous years.

Litigation, sentencing and the reach of support services are going to be impacted, he explained.

“My biggest concern is the number of people we’re going to be able to divert into treatment,” Swanson said. “We have record numbers in our drug courts right now. I don’t know that we’re going to sustain that level if we don’t have people being held pre-trial.”

He described pre-trial detainment as a “tool” that offers offenders support programming. However, if the recently introduced legislation fails, that tool will be less effective without any adjustments from the county, according to Swanson.

John Whittaker contributed to this story.