Friday, September 13, 2019

Plea bargains can allow sex offenders to repeat their abuses

Plea bargains are arrangements made between prosecutors and defendants, sometimes with or without the full, open consult of the parties involved, in which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser and often entirely unrelated charge in exchange for a lenient sentence or agreement to drop other charges.

They are made for a number of reasons, such as saving the resources of the individual or public when it comes to a trial; ensuring a speedy resolution of cases; not subjecting accusers or the aggrieved to the horrors of reliving their experience; avoiding the possibility of not-guilty verdicts; and showing mercy to the accused. 

Pleas are a common tool of the US judicial system. 97 percent of federal convictions are the result of plea deals while that number reaches 94 percent for state-level felony convictions.

These deals are often used for lesser offenses, too, such as speeding tickets whereby people plead guilty to not wearing a seat belt or having a parking infraction in order to not pay the larger fine or accrue penalty points. 

Despite their abundance in and importance to the judicial system, plea bargains aren’t perfect.

Too often men of color, lesser income, and lesser education are improperly counseled, even manipulated, to pursue a plea deal even though they are innocent. This results in unmerited incarceration and years, if not decades lost, in a life already too short on this Earth.  

And then there’s the other extreme – individuals who are likely guilty of a major crime get off Scot free and are allowed to continue the behaviors and actions that should have had them registered if not imprisoned.

We saw that very thing recently happen here in New York.

Two weeks ago, 55 year-old Ronald Rowcliffe was charged with sexually assaulting several scouts at the Massawepie Boy Scout camp in the Adirondacks this summer and during the summers of 2017 and 2018.

The unmitigated evil of that is disgusting enough, but so is the fact that had the courts not utilized a plea he would not have passed the BSA’s background check and he wouldn’t have been able to work at the camp or be a scout leader in Brockport. And, he would have failed similar checks for driving bus for the Brockport School District from 2014 to 2017.

You see, this is not Rowcliffe’s first run-in with the law for allegedly abusing children and it was something he even did as a member of the law.

Most recently, in August of 2000, while a member of Holley’s Police force – a position of public trust --Rowcliffe was charged with 3 counts of endangering the welfare of a child after an investigation revealed he gave 3 boys -- ages 15, 16 and 16 -- haircuts in his home where he asked them to strip, shower and view porn.

Rowcliffe was allowed to plead guilty for something completely unrelated to defiling or preparing for abuse teenage boys: Unlawful possession of a noxious material, an outcome of pepper spray being released in his personal vehicle while off-duty. At the conclusion of a six-month adjournment and the associated treatment, the charges against him were dismissed.

Mind you, Rowcliffe had previously resigned from the Holley Police Department In 1988 after allegations involving inappropriate behavior with a teenage boy. The teen's parents declined to press charges against Rowcliffe at the time.

That said, given the track record, why was a plea deal utilized so easily? Why was it used it all? Couldn’t at least one of the three boys have gone ahead with the trial? Was the plea deal the court’s way of looking out for the police? How was a noxious material plea applied to his noxious behavior?  

There are so many questions, these and many more, but they all lead back to one: What can we do as a just society to minimize plea bargains when it comes to individuals who are likely to commit their alleged crimes again and put the innocent, helpless and impressionable at risk?

By Rowcliffe not having a record, not being affixed with some sort of scarlet letter, he was allowed to volunteer for a youth organization and go on trips with kids, drive a school bus and gain the trust of children, and work at a resident camp where he was accused of committing heinous acts.

Understand, too, that those Adirondack crimes are only the known cases – how many more have gone underreported for the very reason we now have the Child Victims Act (that is, minors are afraid and ashamed to report sexual abuse)?

We’re better than that as a community, state, country, and people. We cannot allow sex offenders to plea down and dumb down their crimes. We need to know who they are and where they are (and if they assaulted or raped children it had better be in prison) so we can protect the precious children, our world’s future.

Think about this: This year, the state passed a Red Flag law that immediately, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, strips a gun owner of his access to his weapons if family or schools perceive a threat to safety. Yet, we don’t have a Red Flag law for sex offenders. They are still allowed to keep their, ahem, “weapon” and have access to their prey no matter how many flags go up.

How do we change this and save our kids from future Rowcliffes?  

From the 16 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, September 6, 2019

Taxpayers shouldn’t pay lawmakers’ sexual harassment settlements

Over the past 2 years lawmakers in Albany passed a litany of laws targeting sexual harassment in the workplace. Among them are standards concerning universal training, how claims are addressed in business-to-business relations, a lengthening of the statute of limitations, and a lowering of the burden of proof.

Coming with those laws was a lot of heavy-handed preaching and concern from lawmakers. One couldn’t help but find their accusations and stereotypes about the private sector to be offensive, even comical, given the history of New York government – they are a group of men (and women) who have proven through the years that some in their ranks get drunk on their power and can’t keep their hands or thoughts to themselves.

For starters, consider 3 cases of local import JCOPE (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics) settled this year.

In January, it levied a $10,000 civil penalty against former senator Marc Panepinto who, in 2018, pleaded guilty to attempting to cover-up unwanted sexual advances he made to a member of his staff.

In August, JCOPE settled, penalty-free, with Panepinto’s former chief of staff, Chris Savage, who had conversations with a staff member about future employment or monetary compensation in exchange for her silence in the harassment investigation.

Also in August, JCOPE settled with former assemblywomen Angela Wozniak who acknowledged she violated state law by making personnel decisions related to an employee she had a sexual relationship with, her legislative director who alleged that she had coerced him into that relationship.

It’s ironic that she followed in office Dennis Gabryszak who “retired” in 2014 as he faced allegations of harassment from 7 women who worked on his staff.

Last month, the state settled with one of those women for $125,000. Lawsuits brought by others affected by his behavior were dismissed because the women had waited too long to make the claims. Had that not happened, imagine the state’s payout to cover Gabryszak’s indiscretions.

The lawsuit filed by his successor’s aide is still being considered -- expect a larger payout since sexual relations were involved.

The settlement with Gabryszak’s accuser and, one day, Wozniak’s show something wrong with the current system: We – the taxpayers – are footing the bill for the disgusting behavior and actions of lawmakers.

Since 2000, more than 30 sitting state lawmakers have left office facing allegations of ethical misconduct. There are many more situations involving their aides or managers within offices of the executive branch who have abused their power. The amount spent on harassment settlements for all state employees exceeded $11 million from 2008 through 2017.

In most cases, they found themselves or will find themselves sheltered financially by public funds, money that could have been spent instead on infrastructure, parks, and schools. It’s a sort of “get out of jail free” card.  

It shouldn’t be that way and it doesn’t have to be. They should pay out for their own misdeeds.

Surprisingly, New York has made some headway in that regard….some.

In his 2018 State of the State Address Governor Andrew Cuomo said “no taxpayer funds should be used to pay for any public official’s sexual harassment or misconduct — period. It is the bad act of the individual, let the individual pay.”

The 2018-2019 state budget included that, requiring officers and employees of the state to reimburse the state for any public payment made upon a judgement of sexual harassment.

This is a very good start, but it doesn’t go far enough.

The state still makes the payment and then has to collect the money from the individual.

Could that happen in most cases?

No. If the settlement is large enough – since it’s with the state first, it likely will be – it would hit a level that would force the guilty party into bankruptcy, absolving him or her of the obligation.

Consider a $1 million settlement in 2010 when 2 women accused a supervisor at the Willard Drug Treatment Center of unwanted advances. In similar cases, do you really think the accused would be able to pay that back?

To fix the possibility of bankruptcy offering an easy out, lawmakers should amend state law to allow confiscation or cancellation of taxpayer-paid pensions from the guilty party, something other states are considering.

The state could also initiate law to have the employee, not the government, be the target of suits, ensuring the attorney levying the charges can pursue a financial outcome more realistic to the accused’s ability to pay.

Also, it should not be out of the question to require, as a part of employment, lawmakers, managers and high-level employees to hold a personal insurance policy related to harassment or contribute weekly to a defined Employment Practices Liability Insurance plan specific to their specific office or public entity.  Those policies would protect the taxpayers.

The state needs to go back to the drawing board and add some teeth – these ideas and others -- to their well-intentioned attempt to protect taxpayers. If not, the protections afforded now will still allow the bad seeds of the world to get off Scot free while you and I as taxpayers won’t.  

From the 09 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, August 30, 2019

Unfunded mandates: New York’s license to tax

As someone who regularly touts the importance of civic engagement I admire the social media and letter-writing campaigns of the incredible number of New Yorkers upset with Governor Cuomo’s plan to have our license plates replaced with new ones for a fee of $25. There’s enough pressure from the citizens that maybe it can be turned back. You never know.

While I dig the angry and active efforts of the citizenry I’m not too fond of the same by elected officials of Republican bent who are capitalizing on it from a political standpoint. They are fomenting and using the aggression as a weapon against Cuomo more than against the license plate plan. They don’t care that you’ll be out $25, they care about making their adversary look like a buffoon.

My suggestion to those officials and their constituents following them lock-step is the same as it has always been: Attack the policies, not the man.  And, while you’re at it, attack the policies of that man and countless more before him, regardless of party, who instituted far more egregious plans than that of a once-in-a-blue-moon license plate charge.

All of the action, all of this desire to make things right is better spent – and is never spent -- addressing the real issues. Specifically, I’m talking about New York’s long-standing habit of creating and maintaining unfunded mandates.

Why get mad about $25 that you might not have to throw away again for another decade when those repeating mandates cost you as a homeowner literally hundreds if not thousands of dollars each and every year?

I really can’t remember ever hearing an angry mob upset over them. Yet, they should be!

The state will too often introduce grandiose ideas and not have funding available and/or not pursue statewide initiatives to make it available (that is, spreading and sharing the pain with a higher state sales and income taxes). They claim to show leadership yet wipe their hands of the mess they’ve created and pass it on to others. Implementation and/or financing is imposed upon the counties and school districts, something that does not happen in most states. The counties then have to acquire the revenues from sales taxes and property taxes while the schools drive up their property tax levies.

That is why New Yorkers pay so much more to keep their homes than do people elsewhere. I often cite this example: One of my coworkers pays nearly $7,000 a year in property and school taxes on his home in Niagara County while, in comparison, one of our clients has a nearly-identical home in Tennessee where his bill is around $700 a year.

That sort of differential happens when there are more than 40 state defined and controlled programs funded by the counties that include Medicaid, public assistance for adults and families, child welfare, indigent criminal defense legal service, preschool special education and early-2000s pension sweeteners.

Nearly 80% of county budgets address state and federal unfunded mandates. For 9 major state programs alone, the state’s counties and New York City collect and contribute $12 billion annually to the Albany’s coffers. 

Of them, Medicaid is especially damaging to local budgets and your tax bill. In 1966, property taxes contributed $112 million to state Medicaid funding. This year it’s $7.5 billion. It’s been said that if the state fully funded – and better managed -- its Medicaid obligation homeowners would see their property tax bills cut by 54 to 62%.

School districts accumulate just as many mandates over the course of every several years, whether it’s new training, testing, standardization, reporting, or planning. Education officials will tell you that unfunded state mandates by themselves (not counting federal edicts) make up 16% of the school tax bill.   

With some mandates the state will placate the counties by shuffling money. Like a fixed card game or pyramid scheme, the state will take money from the counties and then send it back in part to pay for some state-mandated initiatives. But, that’s a losing battle: In 2001, the state reimbursed the counties at a rate of 16%; today, that number is 10%.

Realize, too, that not only are you throwing hundreds of dollars at the state every year but with the tax cap in place counties have to cut your local services (roads, bridges, parks, and police) in order to hold up their end of the bargain to the state.

How do we rectify this?

Beyond reforming the funding of existing programs, a start would be to stop the bleeding and make sure nothing more happens.

In every legislative session in recent years bills have been introduced that would ban future state mandates that increase costs on local governments and school districts without providing state funding to pay for delivering the required programs and services.

That’s the way it should have always been. If state officials want to do things, they need to find the way to make it happen, instead of finding scapegoats – the counties, the schools, and, ultimately, the homeowners.

So, I encourage you to get mad about all this and demand change.

Sure, the fireworks over license plates are awesome but there should be more – a lot more – when it comes to unfunded mandates.

$25 once versus $2,500 every year?

Given that perspective, it should be easy to choose your battles and just as easy to get people to join you in the fray.

From the 02 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News