Secrets within secrets

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Editor’s note: The following guest editorial was published in the Albany Times Union. We thought its topic, which is banning the release of police mug shots, if approved, could leave the public in the dark and have a negative impact on ways the criminal justice system works.

THE ISSUE:

A proposal to cloak arrests in secrecy is itself shielded in secret budget talks.

THE STAKES:

The policy is bad enough; the lack of public debate only makes it more troubling.

As if the secretive nature of state budget talks isn’t bad enough, state leaders have been discussing in secret the idea of keeping at least some details of police arrests secret.

From what little has leaked out from the closed-door talks, we’re told that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have agreed to ban the release of mug shots, the pictures police take of people when they’re arrested. It’s unclear, though, whether they will go further, and accept the governor’s plan to bar release of any information about people charged with crimes.

In other words, to allow secret arrests in New York, an idea so fundamentally offensive to a free society that we are shocked Mr. Cuomo even would consider it. The proposal, and the way even the discussions about it are cloaked in secrecy, point to many troubling issues.

First is the idea itself. Behind it, seemingly, is a laudable intention: to protect privacy at a time when information is instantly available, anywhere, anytime, through the internet. Mr. Cuomo proposes to keep booking information — the identity of the suspect and the charges — from becoming public right from the outset.

But the idea goes against the nature of our justice system, which the framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to make open and accountable — by requiring probable cause to arrest someone and mandating public trials, and ensuring the right of habeas corpus, the process by which an authority must justify confining a person.

The proposal would give police extraordinary latitude to arrest and detain people without the public knowing — for who knows how long. It’s something one would expect only in repressive societies where governments “disappear” people with impunity. And it would put this power in the hands of police who, in New York, already enjoy protection from disclosure of any official misconduct records in their personnel files. The potential for abuse is mind boggling.

It’s worth noting that this comes amid a debate about reforming bail practices that allow people to be held in jail for days, weeks, months or even years awaiting trial simply because they can’t raise the money to get out while their case is pending. How is the public to even know that a person is being held if there is no public record of their arrest?

This secrecy could leave the public in the dark about how the criminal justice system works in other ways. It would, for example, make it difficult if not impossible to detect racial profiling patterns or determine how often people are falsely charged.

We wouldn’t need to be speculating on the status of this terrible idea if Gov. Cuomo wasn’t in the habit of packing policy proposals that have little if anything to do with spending into his executive budget, leaving them to be debated in secret by state leaders, and then handed to lawmakers, in one massive package, to either rubber stamp or have their paychecks stop if they miss the April 1 budget deadline. It’s time that practice stopped, and if ever there was a case for ending it, this abhorrent bill is it.

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