Manhattan, NY – Criminal justice reform laws requiring prosecutors to hand over piles of evidence to defense within 15 days of an arrest have resulted in a massive workload that prosecutors are unable to keep up with.
As a result, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said he is considering dropping criminal cases to ease the crushing burden, WCBS reported.
Employees at Vance’s office, which includes approximately 500 assistant district attorneys, have been working late into the night and on weekends and holidays an effort to meet deadlines.
“We are evaluating whether to defer or even decline prosecution in certain classes of cases,” Vance told his staff in an email on Jan. 24.
Not only do prosecutors have to turn over all evidence within 15 days of a defendant’s arrest, they also have to include information outlined in 21 individual categories, including witness statements, 911 calls, electronic recordings, and much more.
“Every time that you use DNA evidence you’ve now got to turn over the qualifications of every single lab technician who touches that DNA, even though most of them are never going to testify at trial,” urban affairs expert Mark Peters told WCBS.
Vance has offered employees a $60 per diem every time they come to work on weekends, holidays, or stay past 9 p.m. on weekdays, but it apparently hasn’t been enough.
The hours staff are being asked to work are “unsustainable,” he said.
As a result, Vance has been left with few options but to start dropping criminal cases.
“That’s a real public safety concern,” Peters told WCBS. “Whenever you’ve got a situation where prosecutors feel like they need to start declining cases — not because they don’t have enough evidence, not because they’re not convinced of guilt, but simply because the burdens of discovery make it impossible to get the work done — that’s going to impact public safety.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s spokesperson said he is open to allocating funds to help police and district attorneys hire more personnel to meet the evidence deadline requirements, but it is unclear if or when that plan might come to fruition.
Meanwhile, a total of 25 experienced prosecutors have resigned from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office since the new evidence rules went into effect on Jan. 1, WCBS reported.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares shared his concerns about the discovery rule changes back in December of 2019, WSTM reported at the time.
Soares noted that some aspects of the law changes are essentially impossible to comply with, such as being mandated to turn over DNA or toxicology results that won’t even be back from the lab within the 15-day period.
“When we pointed it out to the governor’s office that they need to increase staffing at the labs, they just shrugged their shoulders,” he told WSTM.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s spokesperson, Jason Conwall, argued that prosecutors can simply file a request for a 30-day extension if there is a valid reason why evidence can’t be obtained within the 15-day window.
“We carefully considered the views of law enforcement to ensure we enacted balanced reforms that were long overdue and will bring greater fairness to New York’s criminal justice system,” Conwall declared.