By Kevin Deutsch
BRONX SUPREME COURT – Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark this weekend signaled her support for progressive, statewide criminal justice reform, exclusively telling Bronx Justice News that changes to the current system are “inevitable.”
“My experiences as a prosecutor and a judge give me unique perspectives on the need for bail, discovery and speedy trial reforms and oversight,” said Clark, the first African-American woman to be elected District Attorney in New York State. “The question is not if but how we implement the reforms.”
Clark said she is part of Senator Jamaal Bailey’s Criminal Justice Reform Council, “providing insight on how to protect our victims, witnesses and the community.” Bailey, who represents parts of the Bronx, co-introduced an automatic discovery bill now being weighed in Albany – legislation that would ensure comprehensive discovery before plea deals are made, so that defendants have all the information needed to prepare their cases.
The discovery bill is perhaps the most controversial component of a pending legislative package championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which also includes bills to end cash bail in most cases and ensure speedy trials. Both bills would drastically reduce the number of New Yorkers held on Rikers Island for long periods while awaiting trial. The speedy trial bill, too, was introduced by Bailey.
“I look forward to contributing to new laws that will ensure fairness in the criminal justice system for all Bronxites and New Yorkers,” Clark said.
Her comments, issued in a statement to Bronx Justice News Saturday in response to a question about whether she supported the pending legislation, appear to be her first to the press regarding the reform package.
Defense attorneys in the Bronx said Clark’s remarks didn’t go far enough.
“DA Clark has rightly acknowledged the inevitability of discovery, bail, and speedy trial reform in New York. But acknowledgement of inevitability is not enough. The time for delay and foot-dragging is over,” The Bronx Defenders, a public defense nonprofit, said in a statement. “Bronx residents — particularly those from communities of color — have waited long enough for a criminal legal system that respects the presumption of innocence, ensures basic fairness, and guarantees everyone their day in court. We call on DA Clark to throw her immediate support behind meaningful reforms like Senator Bailey’s discovery bill which will end the ‘blindfold’ law and bring New York in line with other other states across the country, from Texas to Massachusetts.”
The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, which represents all 62 elected county district attorneys in the state, has long lobbied against reform proposals. More than a dozen such bills have failed in Albany during the past thirty years.
The association’s president, Albany District Attorney David Soares, says he is concerned the pending discovery bill could lead to early release of names of endangered witnesses, thus jeopardizing their safety.
Proponents of the bill dispute that characterization, saying the legislation includes built-in protections that would give judges leeway to withhold witness identities whenever necessary – the same power they currently possess.
Bronx Justice News queried all five city district attorneys for their positions on the legislative package.
A spokesperson for outgoing Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said:
“We are supportive of changes in our discovery laws, which are consistent with the recommendations of the Chief Judge’s Justice Task Force from 2015. The recommendations are the product of intense scrutiny of these issues by this experienced group of career practitioners, who have intimate subject matter knowledge. What we remain opposed to are proposals that may unwittingly jeopardize the safety of witnesses and crime victims.”
Among city DA’s, the only full-throated endorsement of the discovery bill has come from Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, who, writing in yesterday’s Albany Times Union, said:
“Currently, prosecutors can wait until a jury is selected and the trial is about to begin to turn over discovery material to the defense. This makes it extremely difficult for a person accused of a crime, or their lawyer, to prepare and present an adequate defense at their trial. While constitutionally permissible, I believe this is unfair. Not only does the current law allow “trial by ambush,” it prevents a person accused of a crime from learning the nature and strength of the case against them in order to make a knowing plea of guilty should they choose to forego a trial. This is not how we do things in Brooklyn.”
Bronx Justice News is still awaiting responses from Staten Island DA Michael McMahon and Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance.T