Low morale, long hours and mountains of paperwork: new Discovery Law stretches District Attorney’s Offices thin

Local News

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — The prosecutors responsible for putting criminals behind bars are feeling the impact of the new Discovery Law in New York State.

District Attorney’s Offices across Central New York are seeing assistant prosecutors call it quits due to increased workloads as a result.

The new Discovery Law states that prosecutors in New York State now have 15 days to collect and share all evidence for each case with the defense.

Several prosecutors NewsChannel 9 spoke with say this had led to a change in how assistant district attorneys do their jobs. They are being overwhelmed with clerical work, and are working even longer hours, according to several District Attorney’s Offices.

Without a full staff of assistants, District Attorney’s Offices struggle to cover all cases and complete the work necessary to prosecute. In some instances, cases may not be pursued due to lack of time and resources to meet the new discovery statue.

Common themes for prosecutors in Central New York include losing staff, increased workloads and hours, need for more competitive wages and low office morale.

Each county we spoke with explained the challenges it is facing.

Onondaga County

According to Rick Trunfio, first chief assistant district attorney for Onondaga County, by March 1, seven assistant district attorneys will have left the office since the first of the year.

Trunfio says turnover is not uncommon, but it is “highly unusual” to have that many people leave in that short amount of time. He added that the new laws appear to have played a factor in some cases.

The Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office is budgeted for “around 50 assistant district attorneys” according to Trunfio. Before the recent departures, he says the office wasn’t fully staffed.

Trunfio also noted, the people who work in public service often make less money than a person with a law degree in the private sector.

“They do the job because they are passionate about it,” Trunfio said.

With the new Discovery Law and increased workload, Trunfio says that passion is being tested. Law school debt for most people is significant and assistant district attorney’s in his office are salaried employees, meaning they do not earn overtime.

“They work as long as it takes to get the job done right,” Trunfio said.

While in Albany earlier this month, Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick said simply “We can’t do it in 15 days,” when asked about the new discovery statute.

Two weeks ago at a hearing in Albany, Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick said the new Discovery Law is going to cost the county $500,000 more in his budget. It can be found at the 12:25:15 mark of the video below.

“As a result of the new discovery, my county legislature budgeted an extra $500,000. Preliminary indications are that it might night be enough,” he said.

Fitzpatrick also gave testimony on how the 15 days discovery makes it difficult to get evidence in time, noting that the State Police lab is already backed up with cases. It can be found at the 12:31:30 mark of the video below.

“If I have a guy that commits a vehicular manslaughter tomorrow in my county, I am going to think about not charging him or her because I can’t get toxicology results in 15 days,” he said. “It is not physically possible. In some cases it is not physically possible to do it in 45 days. So, why would I start the clock running? And then the victim’s family is going to see this guy walking around uncharged.”

Fitzpatrick also touched on the long hours his ADAs are working because of the new Discovery Law. It can be found at the 12:38:00 mark in the video below.

“We can’t do it in 15 days,” he said. “Somebody says ‘come to such and such place and see it for yourself or something.’ I would invite any of you to come to my office and see assistant DAs sitting around at nine and ten o’clock at night not having anything to do with justice or fairness– just doing paperwork. And that is why so many of my colleagues are losing staff.”

Oswego County

Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oakes says one person has left his office this year and it is a direct result of the new Discovery Law and the increased workload it has brought.

“I had one ADA give her notice last week because the new demands are so time consuming,” Oakes said. “Rushed judgments often lead to bad outcomes. The legislature and the governor have created a situation where they have put everyone in a pressure cooker and they have created the perfect recipe for injustice to occur and wrongful convictions to occur. If everyone is given more time to breathe and process, we can get to the right outcome that is fair to the defendant, fair to the victims and protects the community.”

You can see a full interview with Oakes below:

Jefferson County

Kristyna Mills, Jefferson County district attorney, was very honest about the position her office has been put in since the turn of the year. In an email to NewsChannel 9, she laid out the facts of what she and her team are facing

“We are currently budgeted for 11 Assistant District Attorney’s. Currently we have seven working here. One is a new position that we have been unable to fill since Jan. 1. We have lost two people since the first of the year and lost one at the end of December. One left due, in large part, to the reforms. I anticipate the possibility of losing two others in the next couple of months. They will be leaving due to low pay and increased workloads. We are currently getting to a position where we will no longer be able to cover all of our courts.”

Jefferson County District Attorney Kristyna Mills

NewsChannel 9 asked Mills to do an on-camera interview. She said due to increased workload, she didn’t have the time to do so.

Oneida County

In Oneida County, morale at the District Attorney’s Office is “at an all-time low” according to Scott McNamara.

He says his office is budgeted for 22 ADAs and 19 are currently filled. One of the other 3 is filled with a law associate – a person that has graduated from law school but has not passed the bar exam – and the other two positions have been offered to and accepted by people who are currently in their third year at law school.

“As of now, no one has left because of the 2020 criminal justice reform laws,” McNanmara said. “Morale is at an all-time low and many assistants are working many extra uncompensated hours to just keep up.”

Tompkins County

The Tompkins County District Attorney shared exclusively with NewsChannel 9 that he is applying for a grant to ask the state to help him pay for the unintended consequences of the new justice reform laws.

Matt Van Houten said the laws are having a profound impact on the county, as they’ve had to restructure their office and hire people to keep up with the workload.

Due to the new timeline placed on the discovery process, his office has spent $200,000 hiring a paralegal and investigator to take care of that process.

And when it comes to traffic tickets, the DA’s office simply doesn’t have the time or resources. The city prosecutor is now working overtime to handle that process.

“We’ve discovered a couple of things that we are trying to address and just taking it one day at a time, but I think everybody across the state is worried about how this is going to affect the system long term,” said Van Houten,

He added no one has left his office this year.

Madison County

Madison County District Attorney William Gabor is anticipating his office will see changes in the near future, saying 2020 has been the “worst work environment that has ever existed for prosecutors.”

One person has already left and another is almost out the door.

“The one person who left was to become a judge,” Gabor said. “It is fair to say that the other anticipated to leave has among the reasons bail and discovery reforms.”

“Also, an important point is that bail is presently affecting morale which will likely have an effect on retention. It is also becoming more difficult to attract qualified candidates which is why we are presently understaffed. This is a concern that it being seen across the state in DA’s Offices. While Madison County government has been incredibly supportive of our needs, we are still asking people with professional degrees and often large debt to walk into the worst work environment that has ever existed for prosecutors and at a pay that will likely be less attractive and competitive as multiple counties try to fill their positions. The feared effect is that wages will have to rise to hire a qualified candidate which has a negative impact on all of us who are county taxpayers. All of this because of laws geared towards downstate issues which were not an issue here in Madison County.”

Madison County District Attorney William Gabor

Seneca County

Seneca County has yet to see the impacts other counties have.

The small office of only four full-time ADAs and one part-time ADA, has not seen any changes to staff in 2020.

We have reached out to Cortland County and have yet to hear back.

More from NewsChannel 9:

For more local news, follow Josh Martin on Twitter @JoshMartinNC9

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