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albany lawmakers reach compromise on faster trials

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Kalief Browder was arrested when he was 16 years old in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He insisted he was innocent instead of pleading guilty, and he couldn’t afford to pay the $10,000 bail. He wound up serving almost three years in the jail complex on Rikers Island and killed himself after he was released.

State senator Daniel Squadron said Browder’s inability to post bail wasn’t the only reason he spent so long in Rikers.

“At its core, the experience Kalief Browder had is also a failure of the state’s ability to guarantee people their right to a speedy trial even though that very right is guaranteed in the Constitution,” the Manhattan Democrat explained.

State law requires a trial within 180 days for someone accused of a felony and 90 days for a misdemeanor — though prosecutors can get around that if they tell the court they aren’t ready. (District attorneys had worried faster trials would lead to a “legalized jailbreak.“) Squadron proposed tightening these loopholes last year with legislation called Kalief’s Law. But Senate Republicans had concerns and the bill went nowhere. On Tuesday, the two sides reached a compromise that was passed by the codes committee.

Under the measure, if prosecutors claim they aren’t ready to take a case to trial, Squadron said the judge can aggressively step in to inquire about the reason, “to gather evidence on it and to determine whether it is, in fact, the case.”

But it doesn’t require prosecutors to show evidence, or discovery. And the law still lets prosecutors “stop the clock” on the time limits by claiming they can’t reschedule the case because of court congestion. Instead, the new compromise lets defendants essentially nudge the court after 10 days whenever the prosecution claims it’s not ready to go to trial.

Backers of the original law said they can live with this compromise.

“There are people languishing in our jails today that have not been convicted of any crime but are being detained because they are too poor to pay bail and because the courts are inefficiently processing these cases,” said Gabriel Sayegh, Co-Executive Director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice — which has been lobbying for criminal justice reform.

Sayegh called the new legislation the “Timely Scheduling Bill” instead of a speedy trial law. He said he and others will continue advocating for more changes.

Scott Levy, special counsel to the criminal practice of Bronx Defenders is among those other advocates. He said the new bill “falls short of structural change” in the original Kalief’s Law, but he called it a “significant step” toward bigger changes.

Bronx Defenders filed its own lawsuit over delays in the Bronx criminal court. It’s now in talks with the state’s Office of Court Administration about a possible settlement.

There is still no guarantee the new compromise legislation will be taken up by the full Senate before the end of the session. But its passage Tuesday by the codes committee makes that more likely.

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