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saratogian: kerry kennedy calls on passage of bill for speedy trials

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ALBANY, N.Y. >> Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ex-wife Kerry Kennedy called Monday for passage of a bill to guarantee speedy trials to defendants who are being held in pre-trial detention for months if not years.

“The innocent are coerced into pleading guilty to crimes that they did not commit, just to go back to their homes and their families, and the taxpayer gets the bill,” she said at a Capitol appearance.

Kennedy said prosecutors around the state are dragging their feet on cases in hopes of forcing defendants being held in jail for lack of bail to plead guilty and get on with their lives. 

“We need to change the system and we finally have a bill to do it,” she added. “We need our Senate to endorse it … we want the Senate to bring it to the floor and the governor to sign it.”

The advocates led by the Katal Center said that the bill is stuck in committee in the Senate.

“Gov. Cuomo has also yet to come forward to support the bill,” the group said. “The continued stalling in the Senate and the absence of the governor’s leadership … means that thousands of New Yorkers will continue to suffer from the injustice of a broken speedy trial system.” 

Kennedy lives in the same Westchester County community as Cuomo and is the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a nonprofit group that pursues social justice projects around the world in memory of her father, who was assassinated in 1968.

She was married to Cuomo from 1990 to 2003, and is the mother of their three daughters. She ultimately left him and sought a divorce. The marriage was a main focus of an unflattering biography of Cuomo published in 2015.  

Kennedy has lobbied in Albany before during Cuomo’s time in office and her Monday press conference’s main focus was to demand the Senate allow a vote on the measure. The bill is called Kalief’s Law in memory of a young man who committed suicide after spending three years in pre-trial detention.

The bill, which has passed the Assembly unanimously, would end the practice of excluding court congestion from the time that counts toward the “speedy trial clock,” the calculation used to determine when a trial is ready to be held.

It also enacts other new rules in court procedures, including ending routine extensions sought by prosecutors and specify that all vehicle and traffic violations are subject to speedy trial rules. 

Cuomo proposed overhauling the bail system as part of his State of the State presentation in January, but lawmakers did not include the plan in the $163 billion state budget that passed in April.

Cuomo said some people are being held in jail simply because they are poor. His plan would “allow judges to use a validated risk assessment as part of all pre-trial release determinations. Under the legislation, judges will use these to determine an individual’s risk to the public if released. This will ensure that low risk individuals can be released before their trial, high risk individuals remain behind bars, and low-income New Yorkers are not disproportionately punished in the criminal justice system.”

“These assessments will be conducted by instruments that are validated, objective, and transparent to ensure that there is no bias in release determinations,” Cuomo said in January. “Additionally, this will enhance public safety by ensuring that high-risk individuals are held and remain behind bars.”

At Monday’s press conference, Scott Levy, a Bronx public defender said the constitutional right to a speedy trial is not being respected in New York. “In New York, that right is an illusion … the speedy trial (law) that we have now says that people charged with felonies are supposed to be brought to trial within six months yet we know and we have seen that people spend years in Rikers Island waiting to have their day in court.”

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