New York State has an important opportunity to pass reform this week that will make our criminal justice system more fair and more transparent. New York is one of only four states where prosecutors do not have to turn over evidence in a criminal case prior to offering a plea deal. If the legislature votes this week to enact the Discovery for Justice Reform Act, we can ensure that New Yorkers finally have the same rights as people in most other U.S. states to see the evidence in their case.
As longtime current and retired members of law enforcement who have served across the state, we know that fairness is key to keeping our officers safe and building trust with the community. Our goal is to solve crimes and hold people accountable for their actions. But New York’s blindfold law, as the current law is called, has been standing in the way of our work for too long.
In New York, unlike most of the rest of the country, prosecutors are not required to turn over crucial evidence—including police reports and witness lists—until immediately before trial. As 95 percent of convictions come from guilty pleas, most New Yorkers may never see any evidence in their case at all. The blindfold law harms all actors in the system, and it needs to be repealed.
Why do law enforcement officers support discovery reform?
Discovery reform ensures faster resolution of a criminal case.
When both prosecutors and defendants have access to the evidence, they can decide on the right disposition of the case quickly and fairly, allowing police to focus our time and resources on new cases, not old, pending ones. More quickly resolved cases means that law enforcement officers don’t have to keep coming back to court for months or years while defense attorneys and prosecutors fight over discovery. Trials happen more quickly, when evidence is still fresh in the mind of police officers. This ensures better outcomes for law enforcement officials, victims and defendants.
When people see the evidence in their case, they perceive the criminal justice system as more fair.
If the evidence is hidden from them, defendants and their families may fixate on a system they view as unfair rather than looking at their own role in the situation. But when people are confronted with evidence of their wrongdoing, they can begin to take responsibility for their actions, hopefully ending the cycle of behavior that got them to this place.
Sharing evidence builds trust between members of law enforcement and the community. We need people to report incidents, come forth as victims or witnesses, and help us solve crimes. But if they perceive the system as unfair, or too slow, they refuse to engage. This also helps us keep our officers who are on the front lines of the criminal justice system safe, as improved relations between law enforcement and the community are key to limiting violent confrontations on the streets and in our jails.
We want our convictions to stand on their merit and want to prevent wrongful convictions.
Members of law enforcement work hard to protect their communities. We are trained on the law and make our best efforts to solve crimes. If the evidence is out there and it supports a conviction, it should be shared and not hidden from the accused or the public.
Sadly, New York State is a leader in wrongful convictions. Wrongful convictions are bad for members of law enforcement and the community. We do our best to collect all of the evidence possible, but it is the role of the court system to ensure that all of the evidence is vetted to ensure a just outcome. We need discovery reform to safeguard against future wrongful convictions.
Other states have shown that you can disclose evidence safely and protect witnesses.
As law enforcement officers, we are deeply concerned about protecting the safety of witnesses.
Yet every state that has passed discovery reform allows prosecutors to seek a protective order to keep sensitive information away from a defendant if there is concern for the witness’s safety. The Discovery for Justice Reform Act also includes these protections.
New York is operating in the Dark Ages. We hide evidence from defendants and hope that people will trust the justice system and the outcomes it creates. But this only harms accused people, victims, the communities we serve, and the members of law enforcement who are dedicated to protect them.
The rest of the country has taken steps to ensure that evidence is turned over safely and quickly in criminal cases. New York must join them.
Charles Billups is chairman of the Grand Council of Guardians. Noel Leader is president of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. Anthony Miranda is chairman of the National Latino Officers Association.