N.Y. police leaders decry governor's bail reform policies

Some law enforcement officials say the Less is More Act only enables crime


By Benjamin Joe
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, N.Y.

NIAGARA COUNTY, N.Y. — This past September, a Lockport man was released early for a parole violation but is now back in Niagara County Jail and facing more serious charges.

In the short time out of jail, Shawn Pittler, 33, of 133 Chestnut St., accrued charges of criminal contempt, possession of stolen property, grand larceny and robbery.

On the first charge, occurring on Nov. 14, Pittler was arrested by Lockport police when he allegedly attempted to make contact with his father who had a restraining order against him and called the police. Pittler was taken into custody, charged and his parole was notified, but he was ultimately released.

Then, on Dec. 21, Pittler allegedly fled with accomplices from sheriff's deputies from the Family Dollar in Newfane to the corner of Chestnut and and Chapel streets in the City of Lockport where the driver of the getaway car collided with another vehicle.

The driver got away but Pittler was arrested for shoplifting and charged with possession of stolen property.

The argument against bail reform

Sheriff Mike Filicetti said it was bail reform and similar laws that led to the release of suspects who, like Pittler, will only offend again.

"He's been charged with possession of stolen property and also parole put a detainer on him — a warrant on him — because he is one of the ones that was released under 'Less than More' back in September," Filicetti said. "He was released (then) and also he was arrested by the City of Lockport in November for criminal contempt and then we released him again. Finally parole could put a detainer on him so he could be held at the jail (this last time)."

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Filicetti said Pittler has been arrested 36 times since 2004. Of those arrests, Pittler was convicted 22 times. Four of those convictions were for felonies and one was for a violent felony.

At the time of his most recent arrest, Lockport Police Department was looking for Pittler in connection with a Nov. 24 robbery at the KeyBank branch at Main and Elm streets.

A woman was depositing checks at the ATM when she saw someone outside. She told police that she opened the door for a man, but observed that he did not want to enter, so she started to close the door and turn away when the man grabbed her shoulders and threw her to the ground. He told her to to give him the cash. The woman gave him her wallet, which contained her credit cards and $60 cash.

Pittler, the suspected assailant, was charged with robbery and grand larceny on Dec. 29 at Lockport Police Department and then returned to Niagara County Jail, where he is being held.

The Less is More Act, signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul in September, aims to prevent paroled inmates from being jailed over a technical violation. Pittler was released the same month, after sitting in jail since June 28 for absconding from community supervision on Nov. 25, 2020, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Between those dates, outside supervised parole, the Lockport Police Department put out another warrant for Pittler's arrest stemming from the crime of menacing with a weapon which he pled guilty to on Aug. 18 while in custody.

Lockport Police Chief Steve Abbott said he also thinks that the bail reform and parole reform laws enabled Pittler's alleged post-release spree.

"The bottom line is our hands are cuffed and we've got to get our hands un-cuffed so we can do our job," Abbott said.

Fair treatment and representation

Bail reform, also known as Critical Criminal Justice Reform, was passed in April of 2019. At the time, Carl Heastie, speaker of the New York Assembly, said, "The Assembly Majority is committed to making sure every New Yorker is treated fairly by our criminal justice system."

The bill was created to treat those who were arrested equally, regardless of whether they were rich or poor.

"Wealth should not determine whether a person, accused but not convicted of a crime, will be jailed awaiting trial," read a press release from Heastie's office. "The budget reforms New York state's bail system by eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses, and substituting release on recognizance or on non-monetary conditions when appropriate."

For Niagara County Chief Public Defender Nick Robinson, bail reform, along with additional state funding for two attorneys handling arraignments, has led to his ability to provide representation for his clients who are accused of breaking the law.

"It gives those individuals the representation they wouldn't have had before," Robinson said.

Robinson said before bail reform was implemented, the legal process was slower, noting that this law calls for arraignments to be carried out within a shorter time frame than before.

"I feel that bail reform has allowed us to do arraignments at an expedited pace," he said. "It also gives them representation at those arraignments at all points in time."

Another rare case?

While speaking to the US&J, Abbott made note of Danny Merrit, 41, no present address, who was arrested on Dec. 30 in connection with the theft of a woman's purse outside the 7-Eleven at South Transit and High streets. According to Abbott, Merrit has been charged multiple times in the past six months, and was released each time. The charges this past year include endangering a child and disorderly conduct in July, menacing with a weapon in October and arson in November.

"That's the bottom line. Bail reform is the problem," Abbot said. "We have a guy (Merrit) who endangers children, disorderly conduct, then goes to lighting a fire at a drive-thru at M&T Bank, then goes to taking a purse out of a woman's car while she's right in the car. Why this guy isn't considered dangerous and set bail and sent to county jail is because of these laws. He's out again."

This kind of narrative is at the head of the push to reform bail reform, but data shows that it is only anecdotal, said Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-profit connected with the New York University Law School.

"It's definitely not the majority of cases, I think that's what people perceive to be happening with the criminal justice system, but it is actually not fact," Grawert said. "We have the data to show that."

Grawert said that opponents of bail reform will often point to a rising crime rate in the state and blame it on bail reform. He said that this is not the case as the crime rate has risen across many states this year that do not have any kind of bail reform.

"Last year, the NYPD's main argument was that the increase of shootings we see in New York City was due to bail reform," he said. "They said it was because people were being arrested, released without bail, that they were then going to shoot a lot of people. ... That turns out not to be the case."

Grawert said that the New York Post did an analysis and discovered that the data didn't back the claim.

"The number of people who were released pretrial and then committed a shooting were pretty low and it was not a driving force behind the increase in shootings," he said.

Grawert also said that the perception that social services would be able to help suspects pretrial and get their lives together is unfortunately unfounded.

"I definitely think there needs to be services for people who need help, especially drug addiction, etc., but jails and prisons aren't the place to provide that — number one — and number two, they're not," he said. "Even if it was the place to do it, they are not doing that right now."

For Abbott, the fact remains that Merrit, like Pittler before him, is developing a rap sheet and for no other reason than that the law forces judges to free him before his trial, even though, in Abbott's opinion, Merrit was likely to offend again.

"My question to the politicians is this: 'Why is he not getting help and incarcerated?' " Abbott said. "Before he can hurt anyone else — or himself?"

The US&J was unable to locate Merrit for comment.

(c)2022 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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