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Sweeping criminal justice reform legislation signed into law last month eliminates money bail and pretrial detention for almost all misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases.

People arrested on misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges will be issued desk appearance tickets by police instead of being brought before a town justice for arraignment.

There are limited exceptions to the new rule: sex offense misdemeanors and criminal contempt misdemeanor charges for violating an order of protection in a domestic violence case; felony charges of witness intimidation or tampering, conspiracy to commit murder, certain offenses against children, sex offenses and criminal contempt felony charges involving domestic violence.

The legislation also eliminates bail and detention for all Class A drug felonies, except the charge of operating as a major trafficker.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, majority leaders in the state legislature, criminal justice reform advocates and civil liberties organizations hail the legislation as an important step forward in addressing the inequities in New York’s existing bail practices, which they say have disparate harmful impacts on poor people and people of color.

Statewide, about 65 percent of people incarcerated in county jails are awaiting trial. That statistic holds true for Suffolk County, Suffolk Sheriff’s Department Chief Michael Sharkey said today. Pretrial detainees who are being held on misdemeanor or nonviolent felony charges represent about 10 percent of the county jail’s population of 1,200 people on any given day, Sharkey said.

“[The] legislation is a critical step in addressing the systemic injustice and cruelty that was responsible for Kalief Browder’s death and has taken an enormous toll on black and brown New Yorkers,” the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a press release, referring to a New York City teenager who spent three years in jail on Rikers Island awaiting trial and committed suicide after his release.

But for some, the reform legislation, however laudable its intent, presents potential law enforcement and public safety challenges — and many as yet unknown impacts — in the local community.

“My biggest problem with this legislation is that it removes discretion from the court,” said Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), who opposed the measure.

“For example, a drunk driver who kills someone is charged with manslaughter in the second degree and cannot be taken into custody under this law,” Palumbo said. “The same is true for many other felonies, including all Class A drug charges. So if I sell three pounds of Fentanyl, I ‘m out on the street that night. It’s insane,” he said.

“When this takes effect, every single person in custody on a misdemeanor charge gets released,” he said.

Palumbo, a former prosecutor, said, “I get that we need to do something with bail reform, yes,” he said. “But this triple-jumps the line.”

The legislation, which was passed as part of the state budget package, takes effect Jan. 1, 2020. That leaves local officials little time to figure out how it will be implemented.

The local criminal court — in Riverhead, the town justice court — will be required to issue a court appearance reminder to the defendant by text message, email, telephone or first class mail.

The court, prior to issuing a bench warrant for a failure to appear for a scheduled court appearance, will be required to provide at least 48 hours notice to the defendant or their lawyer that they are required to appear in court, in order to give the defendant an opportunity to appear voluntarily.

Riverhead Town Justice Allen Smith, who has served on the town bench since 2000, says the changes will create an extra burden on an already-overburdened town court by requiring additional paperwork and imposing new responsibilities on court staff.

Smith also foresees an increase in the number of outstanding arrest warrants issed by the court as a result of defendants failing to appear in court.

Cash bail provides an incentive to return to court — indeed that is its very purpose under the law, though reform advocates argue it is punitive. Take that incentive away, Smith says, and the number of people who don’t appear will spike, the judge says.

“We already have 839 outstanding warrants in Riverhead Justice Court,” he said. “Riverhead does not have a fully staffed warrant squad. This is going to require the Riverhead Police Department to have a properly staffed warrant squad,” Smith said. And that will have significant budgetary impacts.

Smith suggested the town should look into creating a regional warrant squad along the lines of the East End Drug Task Force. The towns could pool resources to get the job done, he said.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said the impacts of the new law remain to be seen. It might not result in an increase of no-shows in court, he said.

Smith also argues that an increase in outstanding warrants will increase the town’s exposure to false arrest lawsuits when people are arrested on old outstanding warrants that the town didn’t pursue.

If a lot of people arrested and released on their own recognizance fail to return to court, the court could see its revenues from fines imposed upon conviction drastically reduced, Smith said. The justice court has monthly revenues from fines of about $200,000 to $250,000, he said. So as the new law drives up expenses of court operations, it will also reduce court revenues.

Riverhead Police Benevolent Association president Charles Mauceri said he believes many people won’t return to court. “Think of how many people are repeat offenders,” he said. “That’s a big problem, because now you’re putting them right back in the community.”

Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said she is aware of the new law and understands the town must prepare for its impacts.

“There could be huge budget implications,” Jens-Smith said. “I understand the need for bail reform, but the burden shouldn’t fall on local police and towns.”

The supervisor said the Suffolk County Supervisors Association and the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association need to talk about addressing these impacts on a regional level.

“Can we work together to implement this? Can we speak with one voice to state lawmakers where we see the need for changes?” Jens-Smith asked. “I hope so,” she said, adding that the state should support this reform measure with resources on the local level.

“This is a horrible idea,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard, a retired Riverhead police detective. He said the measure has “no rhyme or reason why it makes sense:” and will definitely result in more warrants in a system that’s already “bogged down.”

“I totally disagree with this,” he said. “It’s going to cause more problems then it’s going to fix.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.