ELIZABETHTOWN — State and Essex County officials are concerned that the controversial statewide bail reform measures have made it more difficult to curtail and prosecute crimes such as drug trafficking.
At a news conference Friday morning at the Essex County Government Center, State Sen. Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) and Assemblyman Matt Simpson (R-Horicon) were joined by Essex County Board of Supervisors Chair Shaun Gillilland (R-Willsboro), Moriah Town Supervisor Tom Scozzafava (R-Moriah) and Essex County District Attorney Kristi Sprague to call for improvements to the system.
Bail reform measures that went into effect Jan. 1, 2020 eliminated cash bail for most nonviolent crimes and largely took away judicial discretion. Subsequent updates to the law allowed judges to impose cash bail in more situations.
The group of Republican officials pointed to the Aug. 31 arrest of 12 people in Moriah, many of whom were previously apprehended on similar charges of possession and/or distribution of drugs such as fentanyl and heroin, as an example of how the new laws could be a factor in making it difficult to combat illegal drug dealing.
“The legislation was poorly thought out,” Gillilland said, adding that he was concerned about the effect bail reform may have on the citizens of Essex County and New York.
Stec categorized the legislation as a “trainwreck.” He said that neither the state district attorneys council nor the sheriffs association, both of which he classified as bipartisan, were asked for advice prior to implementation.
“I have six county district attorneys and six sheriffs in my district that were never consulted. This legislation was due to a young man in Rikers Island in jail over stealing a backpack. The system failed him and needed improvement, but it was used as a springboard,” Stec said.
Letter to governor
The reform measure was included as part of the state’s budget, Stec said.
“It was a classic case of revolving door politics. This is an opportunity to right a wrong and give judges more discretion.”
“I am hearing about this from my Assembly colleagues,” Simpson said. “When someone is arrested for drugs it is a great opportunity to intervene where he can reflect while in jail and become sober.
“We need to support the sheriffs and DAs.”
Stec and Simpson recently sent a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul requesting that she work toward legislation allowing judges more discretion in dealing with drug-related offences.
Sprague, a Moriah resident, emphatically said her blood pressure rises at times when people ask her, “Why can’t you do more?”
“When I try to explain, they say it makes no sense. We need justifiable discretion in a judge’s decision, and to bring in all the factors.”
Sprague indicated there is a list of qualified offences that the judges and district attorneys have to follow, and said that should not be the case.
“Witnesses are scared. What message are we sending? Our hands are tied and the balance is knocked out of kilter.
“We can make sure there are conditions considered such as drug addiction. There are many services available. We are missing the opportunity to help them.”
She also pointed out that the laws make it more difficult to deal with drug cartels.
Concerned about citizens
Scozzafava said people in his community, especially older people, live in fear.
“This (legislation) has left out public safety. Our DA, police, and judges are doing all they can to deal with the drug situation,” he said.
“I have seen too many deaths from overdoses. I understand addicts need help. When they break into houses and sell drugs they have crossed over the line. People are fearful and are putting up security cameras.”
He was concerned that citizens may start taking matters into their own hands.
“Something has to change,” he said. “People are frustrated and emotions are high. It’s insanity.”
Stec said, at the end of the day, people want public safety.