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Opinion

Enact Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Responsibly


mayor bloomberg grad2010

(photo: Spencer T. Tucker/Mayor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

The Governor and the Legislature should use this once in a generation opportunity to make New York State the world leader in thoughtful and effective public protection policies that hold offenders accountable in a humane and forgiving way, and which allows those who offend to, within reason, receive opportunities to make amends and start afresh.

They could start strong by creating a grand blue ribbon commission with multiple subsidiary groups consisting of cross-partisan experts representing a broad public justice and human services spectrum.

And they should forego the impulse, admittedly hard to resist in the afterglow of strong electoral results 10 days ago, to pursue ideological approaches at the expense of posing honest questions and hunting for approaches that work.

The poisonous blue versus red state rhetoric is polluting this conversation (this is happening all over the country where more liberal states seem to relish the chance to stick a finger into conservative eyes - and the contempt is mutual): this divisive tact has no place in devising rational, humane, and effective approaches. It presents the false choice that one has to pick a side: the ACLU or Jeff Sessions. We must do better.

This is a task that is bigger than the Legislature and the Governor. Indeed, it is our political system that has bequeathed the contemporary system that is criticized from all sides. It must be stipulated that much bad criminal justice policy was the product of scare-mongering politicians of a different era seizing on anecdotal, low-probability events as grounds for enactment of draconian laws, such as ones that target narcotics possession and sale. There should have been, but frequently was not, pushback when these laws and policies were gathering steam.

Now, the danger runs in the other direction.

Advocates have commandeered the conversation and this has dangerous implications. Far too frequently, this means that several shades of only one side of an argument are presented.

Bail and parole reform of some sort is a commendable pursuit, but the public must be leveled with: early release will mean that there will likely be more victims, and some may lose their lives. Will cashless bail mean that a defendant who has no skin in the game will be less concerned about skipping court appearances? This is not a reason not to embrace change, but advocates (who are often backed up by billionaires who are unelected and unaccountable and who are, themselves, and their families, unlikely to have violence fall on them) have a maddening tendency to obscure or dissemble in the face of evidence that runs counter to their objectives. When reforms are being discussed the lives put at risk are almost invariably not in affluent places.

And the voices of individual victims and communities as a whole have been marginalized or stifled altogether.

To be sure, there are daily miscarriages involving charged individuals -- people supposed to be presumed innocent -- locked up for prolonged periods, despite the presumption of innocence, in true Kafkaesque fashion. Dramatically speeding up adjudication will make much of the bail debate academic.

A blue ribbon commission can look in a sweeping and holistic way at the agencies charged with delivering justice, with a keen eye to unintended or collateral consequences to seemingly simple silver bullet reforms. It is far too easy for elected officials to succumb to sponsoring slapdash reforms that allow them to bask in the glow without considering the wider implications of the bills they sponsor.

Certainly, some legislative steps taken in the name of “police reform” have helped lead to the current death spiral of the police profession. There are a number of public officials who seem to believe, misguidedly, that it is a great accomplishment to create an atmosphere where the police avoid engaging festering community conditions. If they looked across the country before acting, they would know that urban police departments willing to take risks and bear the brunt of criticisms for defending communities against disorder and insecurity are becoming as rare as the dodo. They would also notice that police departments are struggling mightily to find someone, anyone, to put on a uniform these days. This may not seem like a pressing concern in our presently supersafe city, but what if the future sees dramatic shifts and upheavals?

The blue ribbon commission could launch its work by conducting in-depth, high-quality, sustained surveys to gauge the sentiments of people in communities (in my experience the feedback gathered will always contain surprises). And true justice would have a local flavor: it is folly to try to create one uniform, static standard in each of the state’s 62 very different counties. Indeed, even in a single NYPD precinct, there can be many different communities and seemingly, at times, as many opinions and sensibilities about safety as there are residents.

The country (and we could seek out leaders from overseas as well) has many current and former law enforcement, justice, and human services professionals who have progressive instincts but who will not forget that the duty is to strike a practical, humane balance.

We should pursue grand and workable ideas, research, and demonstration programs from all over the planet, rejecting the chauvinism and insularity that is a hallmark of a 50-state justice system.

Consideration should be given to creating a statewide super-agency, something like the Department of Community Well Being and Safety. Perhaps it should be led by a First Deputy Secretary or Deputy Secretary to the Governor.

Too often agencies continue to work siloed off from one another, law enforcement agencies separated from agencies with other portfolios, working at cross-purposes. Protecting the public and treating offenders decently demands that the education, health, employment, mental health, and drug and alcohol addiction infrastructure be central to any final package of reforms. Can the notoriously independent, aloof even, federal law enforcement community be looped into these efforts?

agenda19v2 aWe must also not ignore hard truths. It is a noble and fiscally prudent goal to urgently seek to shrink prison and jail populations. But these populations would be significantly higher if the justice system was better at apprehending those who commit serious crimes. Most of these offenders are never apprehended. Can true justice system reform ignore this reality?

And despite all the rhetoric about shrinking the punitive footprint of the system, new laws continue to be added with each passing legislative session, while existing laws are almost never revoked.

The system has to be repaired but also defended and re-legitimized. There is a widespread misbelief that convictions of the innocent are commonplace. Elected officials must embrace, vouch for, and sell the system; after all, it is their creation. In the wake of serious crimes, people are sometimes not cooperating with investigators. What do lawmakers offer as a remedy?

We need a complete blue sky review of the uses of technology to prevent crime and to track offenders so that they are getting what they need to steer clear of re-arrest. How can technology be used to vitiate the need for the police to make custodial arrests?

What is the promise for treating breaches of public peace and order in a civil, rather than criminal, context?

We need to examine the work of all prosecutors’ offices, but also the concerning trend where “progressive prosecutors” pursue or decline prosecutions or overlook laws never repealed by the Legislature on the basis of what can be spongy, unstructured, idiosyncratic whims -- that Is not a system of laws, but of ‘men.’

There is also a need to provide affirmative policy preventing and responding to mass casualty shootings and terrorist acts ranging from unsophisticated lone wolves to catastrophic uses of chemical or biological warfare in our streets.

And we need to examine big business and white collar crime anew in the face of evidence that some business bottom lines are being topped off by what can only be described as scams, schemes, and frauds.

And essentially, it must be said that this economy is not working for millions of people. Anyone who interacts with young people knows of their fears and insecurities about finding a place in this society. High turnover, insecure, minimum wage jobs represent a menace to society's well being. In her new book, "The Job," Ellen Ruppel Shell sums it up succinctly: “Good work brings stability of the sort that staves off conflict…”

It is always hard to ask political folks to soar above political considerations and to deliver evidence-based solutions to thorny problems, come what may. New York’s political establishment has a chance to rise to the challenge. Will they take it? Will they go big?

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Eugene O’Donnell is a former NYPD officer and prosecutor in Brooklyn and Queens, and currently a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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New York Votes for a State Senate that Trusts Women


a ppesvotespac

(photo: @PPESVotesPAC)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

For years reproductive health advocates have pushed to update New York’s antiquated abortion law and increase access to affordable contraception, only to be stalled by our state Senate leadership’s refusal to consider any reproductive health legislation. That roadblock continued despite the federal administration's efforts to drastically alter our reproductive health care - including our constitutional right to safe, legal abortion.

This November, voters turned out in larger-than-usual numbers for state Senate candidates who trust women to make their own health decisions - because the clear majority of New Yorkers understand our autonomy relies on our ability to control our own reproductive health care.

New York voters consistently support access to abortion. According to a July Quinnipiac poll, 73% of New York voters agree with U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman's right to access abortion care.

However, the state Senate majority leadership refused to consider the will and values of New Yorkers. During the election, we saw the same old rhetoric to shame and stigmatize women and their providers. But we also saw an energized electorate in New York and across the nation that trusts women, supports women, and believes that everyone should have equal access to health care.

You can outlaw safe, legal abortion, but you can’t legislate away the need. More than one-in-four women receive abortion care before age 45, and 59 percent of women who obtain an abortion already have at least one child. That’s your mom, your friend, your sister, or your fellow commuter on the train.

agenda19v2 aWhile approximately 90 percent of abortions happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, serious complications can arise at any time during pregnancy. Providing access to needed abortion care throughout pregnancy simply ensures proper medical care for those who require it.

Our current laws restrict our ability to access abortions to safeguard our health and fail to consider complications throughout pregnancy. Voters saw this clearly even if the Senate leadership refused to.

Now we have a state Senate that will truly represent women, not one that seeks to control them. We expect real progress, including protecting our right to abortion in our state law and keeping essential reproductive health care accessible to all New Yorkers.

In 2019, the voices of all New Yorkers will clearly be heard, not only in the streets but in the legislative chambers. That’s a trend we expect to see continue in our state and across the nation as voters realize that they can create the change they demand by casting a ballot.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Robin Chappelle Golston is the Chair of Planned Parenthood Empire State Votes. On Twitter @PPESVotesPAC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Right to Know is Law – Will the NYPD Abide by It?


NYPD officers

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

New York City recently took an important step toward police reform. The long-anticipated Right To Know Act has officially gone into effect, with important provisions dictating police-civilian encounters. The Act includes critical laws that will help end unconstitutional searches and require that police officers both identify themselves and provide the reason for an encounter – even leaving a business card in certain interactions.

After years of fighting for these reforms, we can start to rebuild the broken trust New Yorkers have in the NYPD by bringing more transparency and accountability to everyday interactions. But to do this, we need full and immediate cooperation from the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office.

The consent to search law will change the way certain police searches are conducted to help end unconstitutional searches. The new law requires that when there is no legal justification for a personal, home, or vehicle search (like a warrant or probable cause), NYPD officers must explain to the person they would like to search that they have a right to refuse the search, and their consent to the search has to be documented.

The NYPD identification law will require officers to provide basic information to the person they’re interacting with in writing, including the officer’s name, rank, command, and a phone number to be able to submit complaints or comments if no arrest is made, as well as a specific reason for the interaction. Interactions that are covered by the law include street stops, home searches, most roadblock and checkpoints, and questioning of crime survivors and witnesses.

Many people reading this might assume that such basic information provision is already a part of our policing system. But these steps were previously absent from law, which has resulted in serious problems.

This legislation is a vital part of restoring accountability and transparency in the NYPD, thus keeping communities, especially communities of color, safe from the harmful and abusive policing they are subjected to on a regular basis.

The Right To Know Act is a milestone not only for its content, but for also for its origins. This legislation started with community members impacted by police abuses and is the result of action from more than 200 organizations involved in Communities United for Police Reform (CPR). The charge in the City Council was led fearlessly by many Council members who also felt that the problem was personal to all New Yorkers.

Our advocacy was inspired by those who have been devastated by the status quo. Mothers like Constance Malcolm and Gwen Carr, who lost their children to police violence, gave us hope in their willingness to demand action. Now, children coming home from school will know that the police are not permitted to scare them, like by forcing them to open their bookbags and display the contents without reason.

But too often our work faced significant pushback from those most critical to our success, including our mayor, who has promised time and again to improve safety and police-community relations, and leaders of the NYPD. The Mayor’s Office scheduled a hearing for the Right To Know Act on the evening that Erica Garner was buried – knowing full well that many critical advocates wouldn’t be able to attend.

agenda19v2 aThe NYPD has missed countless opportunities to engage with CPR on how the Act would be implemented – in fact the department didn’t meet with us until last month, violating the law’s provision that community be consulted in advance of creating guidance and implementation. It has since refused to make any of the necessary changes to its internal guidance to officers that would bring them in compliance with the Right To Know Act and help ensure our communities’ rights are protected. Department leaders then turned around and said that we had “unprecedented” access to materials, and that they had already consulted with the community. This was untrue. And as the bill went into law, a Patrolmen's Benevolent Association spokesperson even referred to reform as a “burden” on officers.

Those kinds of comments undermine the gravity of this law and hardly inspire confidence in the NYPD’s willingness to honor and uphold its effective implementation. NYPD materials still lack clear, coherent language on some of the details required for police to implement the law. And there is mounting evidence that the NYPD is hardly trying to implement the bill in its entirety. It’s crucial that the NYPD and Mayor de Blasio focus on implementing and enforcing the Right to Know Act properly, and provide guidance and materials needed to ensure that NYPD officers follow these new laws. But regardless of their actions, CPR is prepared to educate citizens on their right to know in order to ensure that the NYPD does not violate or obstruct that right.

While the law going into effect is certainly something to celebrate, we clearly have much more work to do. The final version of the police identification bill included numerous carve-outs and exclusions that were universally opposed by the Right to Know Act coalition of more than 200 organizations. This legislation is one step of many in the path to true safety and justice for all New Yorkers. Passing reform-oriented legislation is crucial, but we must also critically examine and abolish harmful and unjust legislation. For instance, laws like ‘50A,’ which continues to protect the officers who killed Eric Garner, need to be repealed to achieve the goal of full transparency.

Today, the Right To Know Act is a symbol of the work we have done, but also of how far we still have to go. We are grateful to the community and the City Council, to New Yorkers for raising their voices, and to those who will continue to speak out against unnecessarily harsh policing. Together, we’ve made history. Let’s continue to do so.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Monifa Bandele is a member of the steering committee for Communities United for Police Reform. She is also Senior Vice President and Chief Partnership & Equity Officer at MomsRising. On Twitter @monifabandele.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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