DA Muehl to retire, citing state bail overhaul

The Daily StarIn this March 9, 2020, file photo, Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl is shown at the Otsego County Courthouse in Cooperstown during the manslaughter trial of Kimberly Steeley, background.

ALBANY — Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl says criminal justice policy in New York is now so stacked in favor of defendants that he has scratched plans to run for re-election when his term ends in December 2023.

“They have made it almost impossible for me to do my job,” Muehl said of Albany lawmakers when reached at his Cooperstown office Monday by CNHI. “For the first time in my life now, the criminals have the upper hand.”

The past president of the New York State District Attorneys Association, David Soares, the chief prosecutor for Albany County, said Muehl is not alone as a public safety advocate who believes the “criminal justice pendulum” has swung too far.

Changes to New York bail laws, enacted under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have restricted the ability of judges to consider impacts to public safety when deciding on bail issues at criminal arraignments.

Soares said the district attorneys, in the coming legislative session, will try to convince lawmakers to restore the authority of judges to set bail for individuals they believe pose a risk to local communities.

“I definitely think it is going to be an uphill battle,” said Soares. But he said the recent victory by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in the Democratic mayoral primary in New York City sent a message that voters favor policies that promote public safety.

Adams, an African American and retired New York City police officer who ran on a public safety platform, drew the support of many Black voters, Soares said.

“The Black vote spoke volumes,” said Soares, a New England native of Cape Verdean ancestry. “People look at elections to gauge where the electorate is at, and where the electorate is at is: We want safety. We want a better quality of policing and we want transparency and fairness in the system. What they don’t want is this hands-off policing that has resulted in criminals being in control of the streets.”

While the progressive agenda has become increasingly influential at the statehouse, Soares said: “I’m trying to keep an open line of communication with the Assembly and share with them the experiences on the front lines” of the criminal justice system.

At a legislative hearing last week on gun violence, Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, D-Brooklyn, defended the ending of cash bail for many offenses and argued police executives are misleading the public with claims that the bail law changes have resulted in many individuals re-offending soon after they are released by judges on their own recognizance.

Walker said the re-arrest rate for violent felonies is less than a half of 1%. “Yet you and your precinct commanders persist in telling New Yorkers that bail reform increases violence in our communities,” Walker told New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.

Walker and other bail reform proponents contend the practice of jailing individuals too poor to post bail is a form of pretrial punishment and unequal application of laws.

“It is possible to maintain public safety while at the same time protecting the very sacred constitutional rights that this country affords to each and every citizen equally and equitably.” Walker said.

A spokeswoman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, Janine Kava, said her agency is working with the state Office of Court Administration to produce a report on the bail reform law with the goal of meeting a Jan. 2 deadline.

Kava said gun crime, during the pandemic, has increased in communities across the country “with or without bail reform laws.”

Meanwhile, Kava said, overall crime in the state “has remained near all-time reported lows. Pointing solely to bail reform as a reason ignores the many other factors that have occurred over the past year and a half, including unemployment, closure of schools and other essential programs; isolation from family, friends and support systems; and social unrest and anti-police sentiment in communities.”

Providing judges with the ability to set cash bail based on public safety concerns is also high on the 2022 agenda for the New York State Sheriff’s Association.

Peter Kehoe, the association’s director, said his group is “working to convince legislators they are going in the wrong direction” with legislation dealing with public safety.

Another recent legislative change, stopping authorities from returning parole violators to prison for “technical” deviations from the conditions of their release, is drawing opposition now from the Public Employees Federation, which represents state parole officers.

Wayne Spence, the union president, told PEF members in a message circulated Monday that the union is preparing to stage a rally against the so-called “Less is More” parole law.

“Now that it is law, we won’t stop pointing out its flaws and pushing for amendments to mitigate its harmful effects,” Spence said.

In Cooperstown, Muehl linked the bail law changes to the fact that defendants in three separate felony drug prosecutions in his county could not be taken to trial because they had absconded.

Muehl said he would reconsider his plan to retire early if lawmakers worked to restore “balance” to the criminal justice system, but doubted such a move is likely.

“I don’t think they are going to back down from what they have done,” Muehl, 54 said. The Republican was first elected to the post in 2003 and has 26 more months on his current term. As with all district attorneys, his $200,000 annual salary is set by state statute.

He also voiced frustration with an evidentiary disclosure requirement that he and other prosecutors believe could leave cooperating witnesses vulnerable to retaliation.

“When they are giving preferential treatment to criminals at the expense of law-abiding citizens,” Muehl said, “it’s time to just hang it up.”

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