UTICA, N.Y. (WUTR/WFXV/WPNY-TV) – In January 2020, Utica lawmakers and law enforcement saw the start of bail reform. The bail reform statute made it so that everyone charged with non-violent felonies and misdemeanors gets released when charged. They are either given an appearance ticket to appear in court at a later date or the court has to release them on their own recognizance. 

If someone is charged with one of these qualifying offenses the judge can set a cash bail: witness tampering or intimidation; class A felonies; felony sex offenses; felony crime of terrorism; criminal contempt; facilitating sex with a minor; and conspiracy to commit a felony. If the qualifying offense is a felony the judge may hold them in sheriff’s custody.

Oneida County district attorney Scott McNamara identifies the number of no-shows as one of the major problems with the reform. “The number of no-shows is astronomical,” McNamara said.

“There’s just nobody showing up to court. Then, what’s happening in the city courts is that a lot of the people are showing up, but they’re continuing to get different charges, so it’s not uncommon for us to have four, five, sometimes eight, ten cases on one defendant, because that person has been out and continues to commit crime.”

The issues of skipping court and repeat offenders are accompanied by the concern of mental health. Under the reform statute, the court can not evaluate suspects for mental illness. The suspect must be in court custody, but the reform makes it so that the court releases suspects on an appearance ticket.

“The way the statute’s set up, we can’t even hold that person to get them evaluated,” McNamara stated.

“It’s very dangerous for the victims in cases where we’re talking about people that are seriously mentally ill that are only committing violation type of offenses which is very common. They commit nuisance type crimes, but they are very mentally ill, and they need to be evaluated. They need to be committed to a state hospital for treatment, and we can’t do that now the way the statute is.”

McNamara is not alone in his concerns. Senator Joseph Griffo expressed similar sentiments when he said, “I think this has been a failed policy. It is a wrong policy. It’s bail changes not reform, these are not reforms. What you do have now is many of these instances, and the indicators in a rise in crime, are attributed to this policy, so this is a problem policy that needs to be addressed and fixed.”

Griffo expanded upon McNamara’s concerns. He said the discovery aspect of the bail reform is equally as concerning as the issues of mental health, repeat offenders and missed court appearances. Discovery refers to the section of the reform that states witnesses are not protected by law enforcement should they step forward and offer any information. The suspect in question for the crime the witness saw can get access to the witness’ information.

“Those were changes made, too, that really now have made it less likely for witnesses to come forward, and as a result, difficult to put people to face consequences for their criminal activity,” Griffo said.

There is no expected timeline for further reform, but Griffo, along with McNamara, is hoping it will happen soon. Griffo’s fellow legislator Marianne Buttenschon was not available to comment.

This story was revised and updated July 2, 2021.