New York state lawmakers in Albany are making a final push to create a commission on prosecutorial conduct before the legislative session ends next week.
The commission would have the power to investigate complaints against prosecutors and admonish, censure or remove them from office.
Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, and Assemblyman Nick Perry, D-Brooklyn, joined the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on Wednesday at the state capitol to advocate for the bill. The lawmakers, who sponsor the bill in either chamber, said they believe it could pass before the end of session.
“I want to get it done,” DeFrancisco said. “This is my top priority and I’m going to do anything I possibly can to get it passed this year.”
DeFrancisco serves as the deputy majority leader of the Senate, the second-most powerful position in the chamber. The bill has been stuck in the chamber’s finance committee since March. The chair of that committee, Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, did not have an update on the bill.
“That’s one of the issues that will probably come up in the next few days, but right now I don’t have an answer,” Young said.
The bill made it through committee in the Assembly but has not made it to the floor for a vote. It’s up to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie whether lawmakers there will vote on the bill or not.
“That status is sort of touch-and-go following its movement in the Senate,” Perry said. “We are trying to get a good measure of the votes.”
The bill made it to the same point in 2016 but did not get a floor vote in either chamber. Perry said the bill has the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, though the governor’s press office did not respond to an inquiry about his position.
Robert Wells, president of NYSACDL, said the bill is being held up by the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, which has opposed it in the past.
“It’s not us versus the prosecutors,” Wells said. “It’s accountability for all of us.”
DAASNY did not immediately provide a response to a call for comment.
DAASNY has argued that a system already exists to review complaints against prosecutors. Grievance committees are appointed within each Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court that review complaints against attorneys. Those committees have the power to censure, suspend, or disbar an attorney.
The proposed commission would look more like the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates complaints against judges and issues public decisions. The body would consist of 11 members, three of which would be chosen by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals. The governor and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly would each appoint two members and the minority leaders of the chambers would each have one appointment.
The commission would be able to hold hearings and investigations on alleged misconduct, subpoena witnesses, and request information on the complaint from prosecutors. They would also be required to submit annual reports on misconduct to the governor, legislature and Court of Appeals.
The goal of the commission is three-fold, advocates say. First, it would reduce the number of exonerations in New York state by providing a mechanism to report misconduct. New York state had 13 exonerations last year, the fourth-highest in the country, according to the National Registry of Exonerations of the University of California, Irvine.
Second, it would hold prosecutors accountable for actions that may have prevented a conviction in the first place, like hiding favorable evidence from the defendant.
It would also save the state money, advocates say, by keeping the accused out of prison and avoiding a retrial. The commission itself is expected to cost $5.5 million when fully operational, according to the bill.
The proposal could end up tucked away in an omnibus bill with other pieces of legislation, which is usually how state lawmakers wrap up the year. There are four legislative session days left before lawmakers are scheduled to leave Albany on June 20.