A plan to centralize the location of arraignments in Cayuga County, which has been in development for about two years, is closer than ever to becoming a reality.
In 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation allowing the creation of centralized off-hour arraignment parts for local criminal courts in counties outside of New York City.
Multiple New York state counties have adopted programs for centralized arraignments in order to meet a requirement established in a court decision that all defendants in the state have legal representation the first time they appear in front of a judge.
Cayuga is one of three counties in the 7th Judicial District that hasn’t implemented a centralized arraignment plan. Of the eight total counties, five have implemented plans. Steuben County approved one in January and Monroe County has not approved one as of Thursday.
In Cayuga County, a centralized arraignment system would require defendants be transported to the county jail to be arraigned, rather than in the town or village of their arrest. The arraignments would happen twice a day in 2.5-hour periods starting at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., according to the plan, when regular court is not in session. That includes weekends and holidays, too. A judge and defense attorney would be on-call during those times on a rotating schedule, according to the plan.
“The importance of this is that we are now assuring everyone that’s arrested — even out in the towns and villages — that you’re going to have an attorney at your arraignment,” said Lloyd Hoskins, administrator of the assigned counsel program in Cayuga County.
He said that town and village judges are currently brought in for arraignments in their jurisdiction whenever one is needed, even in the very early mornings, and defense attorneys have not always been available.
The county's assigned counsel office worked with the Cayuga County District Attorney's Office, Cayuga County Magistrates Association, Auburn City Court and local law enforcement to create a plan, Hoskins said.
Mark DiVietro, an Owasco town judge and vice president of Cayuga County Magistrates Association, said he thought the biggest benefit of centralized arraignments for judges would be a predictable schedule.
“You won’t be taken out at two o’clock in the morning or called at two o’clock in the morning to do arraignments. We know exactly what days we’re on call and what times,” he said.
However, DiVietro said that aspect could be a drawback.
“We don’t know the people. Or we don’t know if they’re a frequent flyer in this town when we’re dealing with them,” he said.
He said that a judge from one town might not be as informed while doing an arraignment about a defendant from somewhere outside their normal jurisdiction.
“There’s pros and cons, I think. There are more pros than cons,” DiVietro said.
Even though the Cayuga County Legislature passed a resolution April 23 to adopt a plan, Hoskins said, the county now needs approval from the state to hold defendants in the county jail until arraignment.
Bill S.5593 that would allow pre-arraignment detention passed the state legislature, but has not been delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for a signature as of Thursday.
However, Cuomo has approved bail reform legislation. By January 2020, cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses will be eliminated. Defendants charged with those offenses will instead be issued appearance tickets for their next court date and released.
Hoskins said the plan for centralized arraignments was worked on before the arrival of this reform, and thinks that the centralized arraignment process will be used less frequently than anticipated as a result.
Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann said centralized arraignments will only be necessary for a small number of defendants charged with violent felony offenses once January's bail reform goes into effect.
“I don’t think it’s any better than what was there before," he said. "This is suited solely to accommodate defense attorneys and the new requirement from the courts."
Budelmann said there are no plans to have prosecutors at centralized arraignments because he was not aware of plans to fund their compensation. Judges have to consult the DA’s office for a bail recommendation with felony charges.
“They claim there’s a constitutional right for even a plastic surgeon to have an assigned attorney at arraignment but there’s no need to have a prosecutor there — seems a little bit unbalanced,” Budelmann said.
Hoskins said the county received a grant for $3.1 million for the next five years to pay the defense lawyers on call for centralized arraignments.
According to the plan, judges participating would not be compensated unless they actually provide "judicial functions” while on call. The plan notes that compensation, which DiVietro said is funded by the 7th Judicial District, is $250 per day or $125 per half-day.
Cayuga County Sheriff Brian Schenck said he saw centralized arraignments presenting challenges and advantages for the county jail, which is where arraignments would be held in a visitation room.
"There will be some cost associated because we're going to have some additional staffing" to hold defendants before arraignments, Schenck said. The staff will also have to screen people who come to observe arraignments.
"I see savings as far as efficiency goes where our officers now don't have to sit and wait for a judge, especially during the overnight hours,” Schenck said. Having a judge come from home could take hours, especially in inclement weather.
“Now, the officer can drive directly to the Public Safety Building, leave that detainee at the Public Safety Building and get right back on the road,” he said.