In the last 25 years, more than a dozen pieces of legislation have been introduced in New York to require prosecutors to turn over evidence to their counterparts. Yet district attorneys in the state consistently argue against this, citing concern for the protection of witnesses in these cases. But this seems to be nothing more than excuses designed to guarantee conviction rates. In Brooklyn, for example, where open and early discovery exists, the district attorney’s office has found a way to help defendants have a fair trial.
The acting district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, said that his office sometimes seeks protective orders to shield vulnerable witnesses or, more rarely, to relocate them. “We’ve been able to find the right balance in how to keep our witnesses safe and also make sure the process is as transparent and open as possible,” Gonzalez said.
And Brooklyn is not alone. States such as Ohio, New Jersey, and Utah all require that discovery be provided to the defense before a defendant enters a guilty plea. Still, New York City has a long way to go. Most people arrested on felony charges in the city plead guilty—mostly at their arraignment, which means they have no way of knowing the evidence the prosecution has against them or knowing if the charges are even accurate. And in a criminal justice system that disproportionately sends black and people of color to jail and prison, this kind of practice will most certainly impact minorities the most.
Bottom line: people who are held in jail on charges in New York often plead guilty—even when they are not, either because they cannot afford the bail (which is why bail reform is so sorely needed) or because they think its the fastest way for them to go home. Yet, they are often denied the ability to see the evidence against them. And that’s a practice that can and should be changed.
In our throw-away culture, we think some lives are automatically disposable. This especially applies to people in the criminal justice system, and is even more true when there is money to be made in keeping people locked up. But if we are to ever move closer to a system that treats each person fairly under the law, practices like these must be reformed.