Waste Watchers: The costs of implementing justice reforms | WNYT.com

Waste Watchers: The costs of implementing justice reforms

Emily Burkhard
Updated: December 17, 2019 12:37 PM
Created: December 16, 2019 01:00 AM

ALBANY - We still don't know exactly how much it's going to cost to implement bail and discovery reforms in New York.

Since the reforms were passed in the state budget in April, county leaders have said they need more staff and new equipment to be in compliance. The problem is, the state is not offering any help financially.

“Counties need to prepare for it. It's about time that they spend the money to right this wrong for criminal justice system,” NYCLU Capital Region Chapter President Melanie Trimble said.

"We can't be expected to deliver on results if there's no investment, significant investment in order to make us capable of doing that,” Albany County District Attorney David Soares said.

Reform advocates and Governor Andrew Cuomo said implementation costs can be covered with the money counties will save from lower inmate populations.

Soares said that won't cover it.

"Operation cost of jails aren't going to change on the scale that it would be necessary in order for it to completely find the criminal justice system,” he said.

Soares said this year, his office has already spent about $500,000 to get new equipment to comply with discovery deadlines. Soares said the volume of storage that will be needed for body and dash camera video alone is enormous, but the bigger issue facing his office is manpower.

The Albany DA’s office asked for about 30 new employees in the 2020 county budget. If the county executive and legislature agreed to all the new positions they asked for, salaries alone would have cost about an additional $2 million per year.

Soares said they've only been approved for 9 new positions or about $575,000 in new salaries, but he also said that will likely change as we enter the new year.

"We are putting everyone on notice, including the county executive’s office, including the legislative body, that we may be back before the end of the first quarter next year looking for supplemental resources to help us achieve our goal,” Soares said.

Defense attorney Terry Kindlon said costs shouldn't be a problem, because digital evidence can be shared between law enforcement agencies quickly and easily.

Soares disagreed. He said right now his office is focused on creating a digital portal that will receive evidence from over a dozen police agencies in his jurisdiction.

“You have to create means by which all of these different agencies, who are currently there's no inter-operability, we have to figure out a way to get all of that information here.” Soares said.

So how much did these changes cost in other states? Two years ago New Jersey implemented similar reforms. The state court system funded those changes by increasing court filing fees three years before the reforms took effect.

Since 2014 New Jersey has raised over $171 million to cover the costs. New Jersey court officials estimate a defecit in late 2020 and/or early 2021. They're urging NJ lawmakers to set aside funding in the upcoming budget.

New York Assemblyman John McDonald (D, Cohoes) believes state should also be helping counties fund these changes.  

In fact, he said he wouldn't be opposed to delaying implementation to ensure money is set aside in the 2020 budget.

"Nobody really knows what the financial impact is going to be. We need to wait and see,” McDonald said. "Then as we start to get those numbers together I believe we need to support that effort, it's only fair."

Melanie Trimble, President of the Capital Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said these reforms can't be delayed. Plus, she said the sooner they're implemented, the sooner New York will save money on wrongful conviction lawsuits.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, in 2018 New York had the second highest number of overturned convictions in the country. In New York City alone, over $33 million went to wrongful conviction lawsuit settlements last year.

“Both of the reforms together are going to save our state and our counties a lot of money in the end because people will be assured of fairness in the criminal court system and not wanting to sue the state for wrongful conviction,” Trimble said.

This report focused specifically on Albany County finances, but NewsChannel 13 asked for cost estimates from every county in our viewing area. We'll continue to update the numbers below as they are reported to us.

Albany County – $1.375 million (DA/Probation only)

Specific costs provided:

$500,000 (2019) DA computer equipment and storage upgrades

$575,000 (2020) DA additional personnel

$300,000 (2020) Additional resources for Probation Dept.

Rensselaer County – $700,000 (DA, Sheriff’s, Probation Dept.)

Specific costs provided:

$200,000 DA additional personnel

$30,000 DA new computer equipment

$3,000 DA cloud storage

$15-20,000 DA new law books

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