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The State Needs To Support Public Defense

It is important that those accused of crimes receive their due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Mandating that prosecutors hand over evidence to defense attorneys within 15 days of an arraignment while including more material in the discovery material prosecutors are required to hand over has a laudable intent. The more information a defendant has available, the better case the defendant can make in court.

It is equally important, however, that public safety be protected — and the state’s actions on this front are far from laudable.

We note, for instance, the requirement that prosecutors turn over names and contact information of any person with information about a case and all electronic recordings related to an incident.

District attorneys argue that without additional staffers and upgraded technology, the reforms could inadvertently cost prosecutors cases, and, if material is not properly reviewed and redacted, witnesses and other parties could be put in danger, they said. In addition to the pressures in district attorneys offices, police departments have to make a complete copy of its file available for the prosecution to give to the defense, including notification of 911 call recordings, video or audio recordings from body cameras.

It’s hard to imagine how area police departments are going to comply with the state’s regulations without adding staff to handle the increased records duties. It’s also hard to imagine how district attorneys offices statewide will comply without more staff. Yet, while the state makes funding available to hire more public defenders, no additional money was programmed for prosecutors to meet the state’s sweeping criminal justice reforms.

That means the state is hurting the public in one of two ways. The first is the hit to the public’s checkbook. In Chautauqua County, for example, Swanson estimates it will take an additional $1.5 million to meet the state’s discovery rules. That would, of course, make it nearly impossible for the county to stay within the state’s 2% tax cap — meaning county taxes would increase thanks to a change in state law. The other way the state is hurting the public is the threat to public safety. Swanson knew long before County Executive George Borrello unveils his 2020 budget proposal this week that the District Attorney’s Office isn’t getting additional county funding to hire the staff necessary to meet the state’s discovery rules. The chances are good that something will be missed, meaning cases could be thrown out of court because discovery rules were violated and people who likely committed a crime will walk away with no penalty.

The scales of justice are supposed to be equal. The state’s handling of public defense and district attorneys is far from equal. The state should find money in its budget to help local district attorneys’ offices meet the discovery rule changes or delay the rules until a proper funding mechanism can be found.

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