CANTON — Before agreeing to pass it, St. Lawrence County legislators Monday night spent an hour debating the merits of a 2½-page resolution urging the state to immediately amend the bail and discovery reform laws that have “endangered the people of New York and reversed decades of bipartisan progress in reducing crime.”
Legislator Rita E. Curran, R-Massena, who introduced the resolution, which was previously passed by Rensselaer County, said she has heard from a number of constituents who have voiced their concerns about the increase in recidivism and crime after the reform bill passed.
“I think this has made us less safe. I think this has made more people anxious about crime and I think you will see a situation continue to add more crime because the message in New York City is clear, ‘You’re not going to go to jail, no matter what you do, you’re not going to be held accountable for your actions, at least not in the long term.’ So I think this is a horrible idea and they need to do something about this as soon as possible.”
While the resolution addressed both the bail and discovery reform laws, it was the bail reform that dominated the conversation Monday night.
Nine paragraphs of the resolution highlighted crimes that defendants could no longer be held on bail for, but Legislator David A. Haggard, D-Potsdam, said the resolution was “speculation at best, fear mongering at its worst.”
“There’s many statements in here that are either, let’s just say they are conclusions rather than necessarily based on fact,” he said. “This is going to take a little time to sort out. Bail is a creature of statute. It has always been a creature of statute. There is no constitutional right to bail in New York. In New York state, the only reason for cash bail was to ensure coming back to court. Public safety has never ever been a component of detention in New York state. It never has.”
Mr. Haggard told Ms. Curran he agreed that the bail and discovery reform legislation was “lousy legislation,” but suggested holding the resolution to do some research and put together “real, substantive recommendations and sending it down to get our legislators in Albany to take a look at it.”
His request for a three-week adjournment was shot down in a 7-5 vote, with a portion of it removed in an amendment suggested by Legislative Chairman Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, and approved by the board.
Moreover, Mr. Lightfoot addressed Mr. Haggard‘s concern regarding sending recommendations to Albany, saying that he and other board members and County Administrator Ruth A. Doyle would be heading to Albany in a few weeks to push their state legislators to hear their concerns.
“So what Mr. Haggard suggests is exactly what we’ll be doing, probably within the next three weeks,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “Nobody wants to see a bad law and coming out of Albany, we have seen several of them over the past few years.”
Moreover, Sheriff Brooks J. Bigwarfe and District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua were asked for their input on the resolution and the new reforms.
Mr. Pasqua said he didn’t see anything inaccurate in the resolution, though there were so many crimes that could no longer fall under bail that he would have to check to see if they were all listed in the resolution.
“As I look at the resolution it calls for these bills to be amended. It don’t think it calls for them to be repealed wholly,” he said. “What I will say, and what I think any district attorney across the state would say, is we’re not opposed to bail reform. We’re not opposed to many aspects of even this bail reform . . . But I appreciate Mr. Haggard for asking for more time so he could hear from all the players in this, and I think that’s the way it should be done. One of the problems we have is this is not how this bill was passed. I can understand the state’s approach is, ‘Well, let’s see what happens,’ and that’s fine, but that change needs to happen quickly because it’s not just cases in New York City.”
Additionally, there will be back-end costs through the bail reform that can’t yet be realized, Sheriff Bigwarfe said.
“There is one cost that the people really aren’t realizing is that when people that get released, and some people that get released aren’t from our area, they’re not coming back,” he said. “And then if it is a felony, we may have to go get those individuals.”
He said the cost can be up to $4,000 to get one person out of state, and it comes out of Mr. Pasqua’s funds.
“So there is that back-end cost to the county that might be creeping up here, because this just started,” he said. “I believe, in my professional opinion, this kind of emboldens people to commit crimes. If there is no threat that you may have bail put on you, they’re saying to themselves, ‘If I commit this crime, I’m free.’ To me, that is a dangerous situation for someone to have that mindset.”
He said this was a case of fixing something that wasn’t broken.
“To me, it wasn’t broke, and I’ll go off the grammar here, if it ain’t broke, don‘t fix it. I’ve been around law enforcement for 33 years. It wasn’t broken. I didn’t see it,” he said. “There are a few things in New York City that happened, unfortunate, shouldn’t have happened. It sounds like a New York City problem to me, not a St. Lawrence County problem.”
Vice Chairman David W. Forsythe, R-Lisbon, in closing before the resolution passed with 12 yes votes, one abstention and two absent, said while Mr. Haggard made the note to let the laws work themselves out, he wasn’t willing to pay the cost.
“My thought is, ‘At whose expense?’” Mr. Forsythe asked. “I would be remiss, I would rather see this stopped now and amended with whatever changes they come up with than to wait for the amendments brought. So to me time is of the essence. I support it wholeheartedly.”