Ulster County District Attorney Dave Clegg said this week he lobbied State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie for changes in the state’s bail reform law. Clegg, who took office in January just as the reform bill went into effect, said “unintended consequences” of the reform posed a potential threat to public safety.
Democrat Clegg, who ran on a platform emphasizing reform and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, said he and like-minded DA’s from Long Island and Queens met with the Assembly speaker recently to voice their concerns about the criminal justice reform law. The law, long-sought by progressives and enacted on Jan. 1, ended the system of cash bail for virtually all misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Instead, defendants are processed and released with orders to appear in court at a later date.
Advocates for the law say that it ended a skewed system of justice that left poor defendants who had not been convicted of a crime languishing in jail for months or even years while awaiting trial, while better off defendants accused of the same crime could walk free.
But, Clegg said, since taking office he has seen a number of cases that point to shortcomings in the law. Particularly worrisome, he said, are cases involving severely mentally ill defendants who make credible threats against family members or others, but who must be released because they are charged with a non bail-eligible crime.
The law allows prosecutors to request that high-risk defendants be outfitted with an ankle monitor. But, Clegg said, the Ulster County Probation Department, which administers the monitoring program, had just four units. In addition, the ankle monitors don’t work in some areas of the county, can be cut off by defendants, and can take up to two weeks to set up.
“Ankle monitors are not the answer for someone who is really a danger to public safety,” said Clegg.
Law enforcement officials across the state, including Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, have called on lawmakers to amend the law to allow judges to order defendants held in pretrial detention when if they are found to pose a serious threat to public safety. Clegg, meanwhile, said his conversation with Heastie also included a request for more resources to deal with other aspects of the reform bill. Along with bail reform, recently enacted legislation also mandates that prosecutors turn over all evidence in a case to defense counsel within 15 days of arraignment. Clegg estimated the new law had increased the workload at his office by 30 percent, with no corresponding increase in funding. Clegg noted that in Dutchess County, lawmakers had recently authorized $650,000 in additional funding to help its district attorney’s office deal with the increased demands.
“I think the message got through that we need additional funding and support,” said Clegg of his meeting with Heastie. “These reforms are good, but there have been some unintended consequences that need to be addressed.”