There are some big changes coming to the criminal justice system on Jan. 1, 2020. Between bail reforms and pre-trial discovery rules, which will be flipped at the start of the year, business will become more challenging for the district attorney’s offices around the state.
Acting District Attorney Mark Sinkiewicz gave the Seneca County Board of Supervisors an update on the full scale of those changes and what they might mean. He categorized the session as a breakdown for situations where constituents might approach them, the supervisors, with questions or concerns about those who may have been involved in active criminal proceedings.
The current system, which includes charges being filed, a defendant getting arrested, and being arraigned, will see significant change. Most notable is the issuance of appearance tickets for a vast majority of offenses. Sinkiewicz said it takes bail almost entirely out of the equation.
Bail will only be imposed on those accused of crimes if the charges are violent felonies, tampering or witness intimidation, Class A felonies, most sex offenses, felonies related to terrorism, and criminal contempt involving a family member. If while released a person has a record of bad behavior, bail can be imposed. But those situations are entirely unknown, and can become subjective, according to Sinkiewicz, based on individual interpretations by the court.
“Looking back at the 2018 caseload, I found that 91 percent of our cases would be ROR’d,” (released on their own recognizance), Sinkiewicz explained. Another five percent would be subject to the least restrictive pre-trial monitor, with only four percent falling under new cash bail guidelines.
“Look, I can see cases where meeting the 15-day deadline will be a challenge,” Sinkiewicz explained. “The clock starts ticking on the date of arraignment. The materials must be made available within 15 days. Although extensions can be granted with ‘good cause.’”
Those changes involving the timeline are the real challenge come Jan. 1. To put a fine point on this issue, prosecutors will be required to provide names and contact information for all relevant person(s) involved in cases, including names and contact information for members of law enforcement who were involved in the case. All 911 tapes, dispatch records, search warrants, cell phone and text message records and grand jury transcripts will also be required.
And prosecutors will have 15-days from the point of arraignment to turn this information over in discovery. The worst case scenario, according to Sinkiewicz, is that cases could get tossed.
There will be a digital portal that Sinkiewicz said the Seneca County District Attorney’s Office will take advantage of. “It’s hard to assess the needs to deal with the changes coming,” he explained. “The digital system will improve efficiency but does require work.”
Sinkiewicz said it will be difficult to predict case flow and some aspects of the law that remain undefined and untested. “Personnel costs may require adjustment,” he continued. “There will be additional court appearances, increased data management needs, and we may need to reduce caseloads.”
There is a race for Seneca County District Attorney playing out as these changes are taking hold. It’s something that’s weighing heavily into the race.
Republican Candidate John Nabinger said that the changes will require an active participant in the process. However, it’s something that he doesn’t believe should impact the way justice is served in Seneca County. “Under my leadership we will approach this issue directly,” he said. “Residents should not be concerned that there will be less justice served, or that the county will be less safe.”
That sentiment and hope was shared by all three candidates, but there are legitimate questions about the changeover that must be addressed, according to Working Families Candidate Christopher Folk.
“We have to be engaged in this process,” Folk said. “We have to be ready to implement all of the available processes and resources so that we can maximize our efficiency and make the District Attorney’s Office a leader in the region and state when it comes to these changes. We can’t be afraid of them.”