New York’s Justice Reform Woes: Will the ‘Blindfold’ Come Off?

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New York State, long considered one of the most liberal states in the nation, is struggling with a debate over the extent and feasibility of new justice reforms.

A  coalition of public defenders, advocates and prosecutors raised the wattage this week on lobbying efforts to force district attorneys to hand over evidence related to criminal charges during the pretrial phase , calling New York one of the four worst states in the nation in so-called “discovery” practices.

But a bill introduced in the State Assembly requiring prosecutors to exchange material to be used at trial within 15 days of an arraignment, appears to be stymied by pushback from the main lobbying group for district attorneys.

Albany County District Attorney David Soares, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said prosecutors aren’t necessarily against reforms, but they’re asking lawmakers to hear their experience on the issues before they move forward with any legislation, reports the New York Law Journal.

“Right now, I think people assume that we just want to say ‘no’ and that’s just not the case,” Soares said earlier this month.

“We want to achieve the spirit of the legislative proposals, but we want to make sure it’s done responsibly, not at the expense of victims, and we want to make sure we do it in a way that will be long-lasting.”

The “Repeal the Blindfold Law Coalition,” a lobby group representing public defenders and numerous community groups advocating for reform, said a change in the law is long overdue.

“In most of the state, prosecutors turn over nothing until trial,” the coalition said in a report issued this week.

“This deprives people accused of crimes and their attorneys of the opportunity to review the information before trial starts, or before they must decide whether or not to accept a plea.”

The report claimed that New York is among the “four worst states” in the country for discovery practices, along with Louisiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.

It cited statistics from Brooklyn, a New York City borough, showing that 56 percent of individuals who pled guilty never saw any information that might have helped them, and their attorneys, decide  how to proceed with their cases.

Under current New York laws, DAs are permitted to withhold key information, such as the names of corroborating witnesses, until just before a trial, on the grounds that it protects witnesses and victims from possible reprisals.

Efforts to change the law have been ongoing for more than 25 years, but they received new impetus when Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised to include it as part of a major “justice” package this year aimed at reforming pretrial and other court procedures, such as eliminating cash bail for low-level crimes.

“No longer will those who are charged with a crime be left in the dark and pressured to admit guilt simply to avoid the unknown,” Cuomo said in his annual address to the Assembly in January.

The new bill was expected to be voted on as early as this week, but that is no longer certain.

“I think we’re still discussing it,” said State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “I’m not sure if we’re going to get to it this week.”

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