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Justice Reform Burdens Can Be Remedied

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 12:02

Yet another aspect of New York State’s controversial new criminal justice reform package is coming under scrutiny — the requirement that prosecutors speedily provide case materials to defendants and their lawyers. This was illustrated recently in the lead-up to the murder trial of Joseph A. Grippo, who is accused of bludgeoning Robert Casado in Montauk in June. Under the former system, the files could be withheld until the eve of a trial.

In a recent court appearance, the district attorney’s main problem with the legally required sharing of pertinent documents with the defense was that a prosecutor was forced to spend too long at a copy machine. Whether one thinks Mr. Grippo is guilty or innocent, it is obvious that this could put the fairness of his upcoming trial in doubt and hamper his attorney’s ability to mount a credible defense to present to a jury.

As of the beginning of the year, prosecutors have been required to automatically provide evidence, including witnesses’ names, crime scene data and images, and grand jury testimony, to the defense within 15 days of arraignments; the practice before the law went into effect had been to turn over files just before trial. The problem, as illustrated in Mr. Grippo’s case, is that it is difficult for law enforcement to comply.

Many criminal attorneys and civil rights groups welcomed the change, noting that New York State’s regulations were among the most restrictive in the country. This has helped create a system in which defendants are pressured to accept plea deals, sometimes when they are, in fact, innocent. New York has among the worst records for wrongful convictions in the United States. The new law takes direct aim at that.

Make no mistake, race plays a huge role. Black Americans are wrongfully convicted and sent to prison at a much higher rate than white Americans. Black Americans even when found to be innocent later, are jailed, on average, more than three years longer than whites who are also exonerated. This pattern stands up for every major category of crime. False imprisonment comes at a dollar cost to taxpayers as well. Housing prisoners is expensive, and wrongful conviction compensation payments and legal settlements have run well into the billions. Then there are the years lost as innocent people linger behind bars, a wrong that no amount of money can restore.

Police officials have warned that the 15-day rule could compromise cases and put witnesses in danger of intimidation or worse. To his credit, East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo did not object to the new law during an appearance at a town board meeting in December. He did, however, project that it could add as much as two hours a week — per officer — for his department, with a commensurate increase in cost. Chief Sarlo also expressed concerns that cases could be dropped now for minor technicalities, but over all said he viewed the change as well intended and said that his department would do its utmost to keep up with the extra demands.

Albany should have included a funding mechanism to ease the burden on local jurisdictions as they figure out how to cope with the increased paperwork. This is an issue that can be solved. The law itself might need clarification, such as who had the authority to extend the 15-day cutoff, but all in all, it is a big step toward a fairer justice system for all New Yorkers.


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