Dec. 8, 2020 -- January began with new criminal justice laws in New York State-among them major changes in how pre-trial discovery materials were shared with defense counsel. The law required our prosecutors to disclose extensive evidence to the defense earlier in case proceedings.

After more than eight months’ preparation organized and conducted by our internal Discovery Working Group coordinated by Professional Responsibility, we successfully began 2020 operating under the new criminal procedure discovery laws. Our Office launched an electronic portal to allow documents and supporting multimedia to be digitally uploaded and downloaded creating a seamless transfer of materials from police agencies to our trial teams and then made available to the defense in a timely manner. This digital system became even more important as COVID-19 arrived. As December began 558 criminal defense attorneys have access to our Criminal Defense Attorney Portal; and from Jan.1 to Dec. 1, the Office sent out more than 17,500 electronic discovery packages.

Our multi-year School Safety Commission held a February event for school administrators and other stakeholders to share best practices and Commission recommendations to continue the work of keeping students and staff safe in hundreds of school facilities here in the County. In March, when the world turned upside down because of the raging coronavirus pandemic and Westchester became a hot spot, all of our lives and how we worked would change by necessity. School closures and remote education put other Commission events on pause but our staff continued the other essential work of the DA’s Office. With law enforcement and the state court system, we initiated ways to protect our staff, witnesses and defendants from this insidious disease. Consolidated courtrooms were opened. Proceedings were limited to the most critical. Virtual court systems were put in place which allowed many proceedings to be conducted via video conferences. Even now, our prosecutors are in courtrooms throughout the County daily conducting in-person calendar calls, non-jury trials, and hearings.

Jury trials and grand juries were paused for several months from spring into summer. In the meantime, our grand jury room was enlarged while courtrooms were renovated to meet safety protocols. When the backlog of cases to be presented to the grand jury surged, with the support of the Administrative Judge and the County, we quickly found an offsite location for a second grand jury panel. Our first grand jury after COVID was empaneled mid-July and trials resumed Oct. 20; but again, in November, jury trials were paused for the foreseeable future. As the result of safe-distancing measures, court calendars take longer but they continue.

In early April, with the help of the Corrections Department and in consultation with the Legal Aid Society, our Office undertook a comprehensive review of every person incarcerated in the Westchester County Jail to assess whether, without compromising public safety, they were appropriate for early release. That move reduced the jail population.

With concerns that COVID isolation and school closings would exacerbate domestic violence and child abuse issues, our Special Prosecutions Division continued to focus on our most vulnerable, joining the Governor’s Task Force on Domestic Violence which was launched earlier this year. In addition, they have enhanced their work with community partners and advocacy organizations to identify and support special victims, and they have continued training and outreach to police departments and others. The number of cases opened in 2020 has dipped only slightly from last year and our staff, along with networks of advocates and social services, are supporting child, intimate partners and elder victims during this unprecedented time.

Investigations and prosecutions have continued unabated into gang activity and violence, pattern burglaries, rising car thefts, and auto insurance fraud, as well public integrity cases to name a few. Appeals processes continued and our FOIL commitments were met. In addition to continuing a comprehensive training program for our newer prosecutors, our Training and Education Bureau quickly transitioned during the pandemic to online learning and provided 539 hours of continuing legal education to prosecutors throughout our office.

In the fall, we welcomed Lewis, our first “facility dog” to our staff. He is specially trained to work with victims and witnesses to help relieve their stress during the criminal justice process. Lewis was raised and trained by the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence and has been granted to our Office free of charge.

During my four-year tenure, I placed a premium on diversity and inclusion, pushing our staffing to more closely represent the communities we serve. As of this month, 27.6 percent of prosecutors contributed to staff diversity. Women make up 54.5 percent of our prosecutors. Since 2017, 35.7 percent of ADAs hired contributed to our diverse staff.

In addition, we took a proactive stance on a number of criminal reform issues. We changed how marijuana offenses are prosecuted, implemented bail reform ahead of the state legislation, expanded reentry programs and specialty courts because simply prosecuting criminals is not enough. We have tried to address the root causes of crime and the societal conditions that exacerbate criminal activity. We created a program to help buyers of illegal drugs get support instead of incarceration as they were caught in investigations into drug trafficking rings. We continued to educate residents to the use of Red Flag Laws, where a person with access to guns and in danger of hurting themselves or others can have those weapons taken away through extreme risk protection orders. These programs have made a difference in the equity and safety of Westchester County.

As 2020 comes to an end, I wish to express my thanks and appreciation for our outstanding staff. Our talented attorneys, supported by our dedicated criminal investigators and committed support staff, have ensured the success of this Office during difficult times and guaranteed we have met our obligations to our victims, witnesses and to those accused of crimes. As this is my last newsletter as District Attorney of Westchester County, I’d like to say I am proud of having held this position and all the work done by the 200-plus staff of the DAO during my four years. Together we were true to the same mission–a dedication to creating a safer and more secure community through the pursuit of truth and a commitment to justice.

Meanwhile, best wishes for a Happy New Year!

written signature

Anthony A. Scarpino, Jr.
Westchester County District Attorney


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