Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Nassau District Attorney Rice Announces An Early Assessment Bureau: Justice Delivered Or Fiscal Boondoggle?

Nassau's New District Attorney has announced a new initiative which both increases her office size, and seeks to restore her image with Women and Family first voters. The question is: Will it result in better justice at less cost?

DA Kathleen Rice has come under fire here before (see here, here, and here.) As a result of my criticism some have wondered whether I intend to run against her. Let's handle that first. While one never says never, it is highly unlikely for so many reasons. Those reasons can be saved for another day, suffice it to say, I am critical of Rice because I want to see results without an unnecessary increase in costs.

Ok now lets deal with the new proposal. Rice's New Early Case Assessment Unit is not an unwelcome addition. The ECAB bureau is now going to take police arrest paperwork and decide what the charges should be and how those charges should be drafted. Up until now that job was the police department's job alone.

In order for ECAB to be a success, it has to be less expensive than the police doing it and it has to result in fewer felony and serious misdemeanor charges from being filed.

I realize that lower charging seems counter-intuitive but it has been an open secret that Nassau Police over-charge cases. Hence a lot of the plea bargaining that goes on in Nassau courts is to just get the right charge to begin with because the police over-charge. The causes of over-charging can be many. One reason might be that the police do not have the legal experience to make nuanced decisions about charges. A more nefarious reason is that charging a burglary instead of a trespass looks good on a police officers resume. Charging an Assault 2rd degree is better than an Assault 3rd degree.

Now fairer charging will result in what appears to be a drop in the crime rate. That is illusory. That aside, it will result in a clearer picture of the real crime rate in Nassau County. An ECAB unit also takes away from the District Attorney the right to hide behind the police actions as in "I didn't bring the charge I only prosecute what the Police charge" which is how Nassau District Attorneys have defended themselves against the defense charge of "over-charging.

The PBA and other Police labor Unions fear that ECAB will both decrease overtime and take away the Police perogative in charging crime thus making it harder to control the streets. Criminals will have less to fear of a cop overcharging the case.

A reduction in police overtime would be welcome from taxpayers point of view. Part-time assistant district attorney's cost a lot less than overtime paid police (Police tend to out earn their ADA counterparts anyway.) However I have worked in an ECAB type unit in Mount Vernon (NY)in the early 80's and I would doubt that the unit will cut overtime substantially. Instead of drafting from a form charge, police will now sit with an ADA and they will type out the charge instead. I do not see a savings unless the police can teletype or email the paperwork to the ECAB and then they just redraft. Moreover since Police have to bring suspects to Police HQ anyway there is no savings in time driving from the Precinct to Mineola. Hence it seems like all we have done is added a layer of bureaucracy to the process. It may be, however, that the new project reduces over-all prosecution costs.

The new unit is going to cost 1.2 Million Dollars ($1,200,000.00). That's a lot of money. In order to adjudge this expense a success, Rice is going to have to prove a significant drop in over-charging and in Over-time or at least in general prosecution costs.

One final point, DA Rice is using the unit to place part-time employees. It is meant to undue the harm done when she eliminated part-time jobs for prosecutors this past summer. The ECAB unit is a failure if it is to be measured as a solution to the part-time lawyer fiasco. That however is fodder for a different post.

As for now, for ECAB, the jury is out.
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