The State of New York enacted sweeping criminal justice reform with the biggest changes in law taking effect January 1, 2020.

As the chief law enforcement officer of Westchester County, my mission is to create a safer and more secure community through the pursuit of truth and a commitment to justice. With a long career as a judge and now as District Attorney, I have been on both sides of the Bench. I welcome criminal justice reform and believe it is time for more transparency in the criminal justice system.

One major change in 2020 for prosecutors and law enforcement is the new Discovery statute. In criminal court, pretrial discovery is the process by which the prosecution provides its evidence to the defendant. The new law enumerates all materials gathered by police and investigators–written, audio or visual (including 911 calls and police bodycam video)–must be turned over to the defense within 15 days of a defendant’s first court appearance.

We believe one key purpose of the discovery statute is to insure that our Office undertakes an early and comprehensive assessment of cases in order to promptly address any instances of overcharging or incorrect charging.

To be ready for January 1, my Office has been immersed in preparation and training since the laws were signed. An internal working group established training programs for our staff and has overseen testing of the delivery of materials in real time to assess the workflow and staff hours needed to meet the new discovery mandate. Those tests made it clear we would need additional staffing to meet the new timeline for discovery for all 27,000-plus cases handled by this Office each year–from violations through misdemeanors and felonies.

In an effort to streamline this new process, my Office, as part of our new case management system, immediately designed and built an electronic portal. It will allow police and other law enforcement partners to upload all discovery materials for review by an Assistant District Attorney and make it available to the defense in a seamless manner. The portal has been launched and is ready for use. To pay for this system and not burden County taxpayers we used asset forfeiture funds.

In June, we began an education campaign with senior staff traveling to meet at local police departments throughout the county. We provided each department with an overview of the new law and then talked through its practical impact on their department. This campaign stretched throughout June, July and August and included each local police department as well as other agencies such as the SUNY Purchase Police and the MTA police. In addition, hundreds of representatives from all 40 local police departments, NY State and County Police, MTA, Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and others attended a training presentation which we hosted to give more clarity to the finer points of both the new bail and discovery statutes.
We are working with the Legal Aid Society, the 18 B panel of lawyers and the criminal defense bar to ensure a smooth transition as of January 1. We recognize the new laws impose obligations on them that will increase their workload as well. We have also focused on educating elected officials and the public about what the changes mean.

As for bail reform, I don’t believe anyone should spend time in jail just because they cannot afford to pay bail. That is why I stopped requesting bail almost two years ago on most misdemeanors and in cases in which I would not seek a jail sentence. Based on the new 2020 law, which will end cash bail and pre-trial detention in all but a shortlist of qualifying cases, I have directed my Office to stop seeking bail immediately on cases that would not be eligible at the first of the year.

In approaching our work, we have done so with an understanding that we have an obligation to our victims and to the those accused of crimes to create conditions under which our ADAs can responsibly and ethically engage in the practice of criminal law under the new statutory framework.

As we move forward, our mission remains the same–to keep this County safe and to serve justice under the law.