AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A big change is coming to the New York state criminal justice system with the start of the new year. The state will join New Jersey and California in severely restricting the use of cash bail, and prosecutors will have to share evidence a lot sooner with defendants. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste has been following all of these changes and joins us now. Hey, Martin.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So let's just start with New York's bail system. What exactly is changing there?
KASTE: Well, courts will no longer be allowed to set bail for misdemeanor charges and nonviolent felonies. Now, of course, you're familiar with bail - it's basically collateral. You give the court some money to guarantee that you'll show up for trial. That's the idea, historically. But in practice, what happens is something of an economic injustice according to the district attorney in Erie County. His name is John Flynn, and he basically works in Buffalo.
JOHN FLYNN: You had a problem of individuals who were incarcerated pretrial because they were poor. And that problem, quite frankly, affected more people of color as well. And this legislation is going to change that, and this legislation is changing that for the good.
CHANG: Interesting. That's a prosecutor we're hearing right there. He wants to end cash bail.
KASTE: Yeah. In fact, he's already telling his staff to stop asking for bail in most cases, and they say the number of people waiting for trial in their jail has dropped quite a bit.
CHANG: What about this other big change that prosecutors are facing - that they will have to be sharing evidence with defendants a lot sooner?
KASTE: Well, New York was one of few states it still had what some people call a blindfold law, which basically meant that prosecutors didn't have to share the evidence they had against someone until right before the trial. So oftentimes, you might be sitting in jail or waiting for trial, and you have no idea how strong a case the prosecution has against you.
KASTE: It would affect what you decide to do in terms of whether you take a plea bargain or not. Now they have 15 days from the arraignment to share their evidence with the defense, and that, a lot of people think, will really change the sort of balance of power pretrial.
CHANG: These two changes that you're talking about to the cash bail system and the sharing of evidence - they seem very fundamental. Is all of this supposed to just happen overnight?
KASTE: No. In fact, parts of the state have already been moving in this direction for a while. The - New York City has been moving away from bail. They had some pretty notorious cases - there was one of a teenager who was sitting at Rikers Island for three years for what turned out to be a very weak case against him for robbery. He ended up taking his own life. That got a lot of attention at the time.
And so, you know, there's been a pressure to kind of move away from this. There's also been - a lot of prosecutors have told me that they do share information more readily with defense. But what this does, though, is make rural places really have to scramble because there, when you're checked into jail, it's also kind of the central point where you get services - say, if you're a drug addict or something like that. And now they've got to figure out how to do what richer places like New York City do already, which is distribute some of those services for defendants in ways that are more sort of dispersed and, frankly, it's a more expensive process.
CHANG: So for the people who wanted to see these changes take place - I mean, how do they see these new rules transforming the way the criminal justice system functions as a whole in New York?
KASTE: And not just New York, the whole country. The United States is an oddity in Western democracies in how often there's no trial for a criminal charge - 95%, roughly, of all criminal charges never go to trial. And that's in part, people think, because of the leverage that prosecutors have, both in the situation where people are waiting in jail because they can't afford bail, or because of, you know, the fact that a plea bargain now might be a better deal than I might get in court.
KASTE: With some of these shifts, there may be more people who decide to go for trial - to risk it. And it'll be interesting to see whether New York state courts all of a sudden have a lot longer dockets of people waiting for court dates.
CHANG: So fascinating. That is NPR's law enforcement correspondent, Martin Kaste. Thank you, Martin.
KASTE: You're welcome.
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