Onondaga County Lawmakers Implore NYS to Amend Criminal Justice Reforms Despite Community Pushback

Feb 4, 2020

Legislature Chairman Dave Knapp defends the rationale behind the non-binding resolution after most speakers strongly criticized the move.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

Onondaga County lawmakers approved a non-binding resolution Tuesday telling the state to make immediate changes to the criminal justice reforms that took effect January 1.  They include returning discretion to judges to impose bail for certain crimes, and for the state to fund the additional cost of implementing mandates under the reforms.  

But the 10-6 party line vote with Republicans in favor didn’t come without significant pushback from those who feel the reforms were long overdue.  They included defense attorney Ben Kauffman.  

"Hold off.  I believe at this time it's premature to make any kind of a judgment.  These reforms are barely a month old.  I don't think there's any rational basis upon which a determination can be made at this time as to whether these reforms are working or not."

Kelly Gonzalez is Deputy Director of the Center for Community Alternatives, which has adovocated for alternatives to incarceration for nearly four decades.

Defense attorney Benjamin Kauffman called on lawmakers to gather the facts, examine them, and reach a conclusion based on rational thought and deliberation, and not fear mongering and anecdotal evidence.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

"At CCA, we witness the harm that occurs when someone is detained pretrial.  It often means the loss of a job, falling further behind on bills, rent, eviction.  Our prior bail laws violated our constitutional right to the presumption of innocence,  treating those who could not afford bail as guilty until proven otherwise, disproportionately impacting communities of color...black and brown communities."

Legislator Chris Ryan's district covers the Near West Side of Syracuse, which includes two of the most impoverished census tracts in the nation.

"Last year, if you had the money to get out jail, you could get out of jail.  Citizens of Onondaga County, specifically in my district, have been across the street [in the justice center jail] locked up because they didn't have the money to get out of jail."

A measure by Ryan to table the resolution for further discussion failed. 

The only one to speak in favor of the resolution during the public comment portion of the meeting was Onondaga County First Chief Assistant DA Rick Trunfio.  

First Chief Assistant DA Rick Trunfio explains some of the inconsistencies with the justice reforms, and that parts of it are not well written. He says assistant DA's and those in the crime labs are working late into the night for no additional pay to accommodate the new reforms.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

"The one thing I didn't hear from any speaker up here is how this impacts victims of crime.  Let me tell you something:  Victims of crimes are in those same neighborhoods.  When you say bail is tearing communities apart, how about gang violence?  How about narcotics trafficking?"

After the public comment period ended, Chairman David Knapp wanted to clarify the legislature's position:

"This is not a repeal.  We're not asking that the state repeal these reforms.  What we're asking for is what we think are some common sense modifications.   Believe me...no one wants to see that jail full over there.  In fact, I can't wait until we can start closing floors to start saving money and doing good for the community with that money."

Still, democratic lawmakers questioned the rush.  They urged their republican colleagues to wait at least 6 months for the reforms to produce some results before imposing their opinion on the state delegation.  Democratic Floor Leader Linda Ervin went as far to say the non-binding resolution "is a piece of paper to make someone feel good."

When the final vote was cast by lawmakers, someone from the gallery shouted "Shame!"   

Several community leaders gathered outside the Onondaga County Courthouse prior to the meeting to condemn the resolution. Speaking is defense attorney Donald Kelly.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News