CHENANGO COUNTY – In light of New York State’s recently enacted justice reforms, Chenango County First Assistant Public Defender Zachary Wentworth discussed some of the changes and the need for reform.
Wentworth said defense attorneys have been pushing lawmakers for criminal justice reforms for years, and have been denied until recently.
“The defense bar has been pushing for change for more than eight years, it’s not like these were thought up overnight,” said Wentworth. “I think the severity of the changes is the product of one side saying we need to make changes, the other side saying no, and then when they’re able to make the changes they pass everything they can.”
“Now I think we need to go back and find the things we can change that are more appropriate for moving forward like giving judges discretion in some instances and revisiting the discovery timeline.”
He said, generally the criminal justice reforms can be split into two different sections – bail and discovery reforms.
“The purpose of bail is to get people to court; if people are convicted of the crimes they are charged with, they’re likely going to go to jail,” Wentworth added. “Then they’ll serve the time that’s required of them.”
He said another idea behind bail reform is that bail at times can affect poor individuals a lot more than it can affect people that have well-paying jobs.
“I might be able to post $500 bail in an hour, but one of my clients might not have two nickels to rub together, let alone $500,” said Wentworth.
He said being incarcerated on bail can put unnecessary restraints on an individual attempting to assist in their own defense.
“The fact of the matter is, it’s difficult in my job to help my client defend themselves when they’re incarcerated,” he added. “They have limited access to things that might be helpful to them, like cell phone messages or videos.”
Wentworth said those sorts of things aren’t easy for individuals to access if they’re incarcerated.
He said in the case of the discovery reforms, lawmakers argued that law enforcement and district attorney’s offices should have evidence prepared as soon as possible, and principals should have the right to a speedy trial. He added that in reality, the reforms are an added pressure on public defender offices as well.
“Even though we have four full time attorneys here, we only have three doing criminal work,” said Wentworth. “I have people in the community that have the impression, ‘Oh, you still have to go to court? I didn’t think anyone was going to jail.’”