December 2, 2021

Arraignment plan delayed pending DA’s plea to state

Cortland Standard file photo

The Cortland City Courthouse is shown in this December 2016 file photo.

A plan to create a central arraignment facility and process has been delayed until at least Oct. 24 because Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti said he wouldn’t sign a letter supporting the idea because of what it would do to his office.

Without an agreement, the county could lose more than $1 million in state funding, County Attorney Karen Howe said.

The plan would conduct criminal arraignments in Cortland City Court hours during normal hours. But during off hours, such as nights and weekends, a rotation of municipal judges would hear arraignments at the Cortland County Jail rather than potentially waiting days for a municipal court to convene.

That plan requires the approval of every police department that works in Cortland County as well as the County Attorney’s Office, District Attorney, Public Defender and Cortland County Magistrates Association.

However, Perfetti initially said at a meeting this week of the county Legislature’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee that he would not support the plan because several municipal judges have told him they want to see prosecutors at arraignment, although the draft plan doesn’t specifically require them. That would put an added strain on his office, which he said is already understaffed.

It was not indicated whether everyone else would sign off.

Sheriff Mark Helms, Public Defender Keith Dayton and Howe were at the meeting and raised no objections to giving letters of support.

However, after the meeting, Perfetti said he is willing to wait on his decision until he hears from the state Office of Court Administration on whether he can continue the current practice.

“Having some OCA input on this would be beneficial,” Perfetti said.

When there is an off-hours arraignment now, Perfetti said, a law enforcement agency will call his office for a bail recommendation, which the officer gives to the judge.

“I’m happy to continue the same practice that we’ve been doing provided the local criminal court magistrates don’t impose an additional requirement on it,” he said.

The centralized arraignment plan has been in the works for months to better deal with a state requirement to have counsel at first appearance, particularly when court normally isn’t in session. It was also a recommendation by the Vera Institute of Justice, which provided a free study to find ways the county could reduce the number of inmates in the county jail, which has been consistently overcrowded for more than 20 years.

Cortland County Attorney Karen Howe said the county needs the plan by Jan. 1 to comply with the law.

If the plan is not adopted on time, the county would lose “well over $1 million in funding.”

“If council at OCA will give me a letter ensuring me that I’m not being compromised in my understanding of what I may be agreeing to, I’ll be happy to give you a letter of recommendation, I’m not looking to hold up that kind of revenue from the county,” Perfetti said.

The committee will have a special meeting at 4 p.m. Oct. 24 to vote on the resolution.