Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/81 Fri, 15 Dec 2017 08:10:41 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Can Anyone Defeat Eric Gonzalez for Brooklyn DA? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7181:can-anyone-defeat-eric-gonzalez-for-brooklyn-da http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7181:can-anyone-defeat-eric-gonzalez-for-brooklyn-da tish and gonzalez

Acting Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez with Public Advocate Tish James


With just days before Brooklynites head to the polls and decide who will be the borough’s next district attorney, a position briefly held and transformed by the late Kenneth Thompson, the field is crowded with Democratic candidates, each vying to present him or herself as the most progressive, best-suited option to carry on Thompson’s legacy.

Of the six Democratic candidates who will be on Tuesday’s ballot, the frontrunner -- having raised the most money and scooped up endorsements including from elected officials, major labor unions, political clubs, and women's’ rights groups -- is Eric Gonzalez, who was annointed as acting district attorney by Thompson before he died of cancer at age 50 in 2016. Though several of his challengers are energetic debaters and well-qualified for the role, unless someone has differentiated him or herself enough and gets out the vote in a big enough number, Gonzalez’s built-in credibility as Thompson’s “heir” may largely carry him to a full first term of his own.

Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black district attorney, beat out longtime top prosecutor Charles Hynes -- who held the seat for two and a half decades -- in 2013 by campaigning on a platform of reform, and by most accounts was making impressive strides in transforming the criminal justice system in Brooklyn, including by overturning several of Hynes’ faulty convictions, before his death.

While district attorneys have historically kept a low-profile, those who hold the seat wield significant influence and discretion over the borough’s crime fighting policies, and without term limits, the same person may control the office for decades. However, in Brooklyn, the seat could potentially change hands for the third time in five years, and with crime statistics at a record low, the conversation has taken a drastic turn from cracking down on crime to compassionate law enforcement, removing structural racial bias, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

The election comes during a period of heightened public awareness about police and prosecutorial treatment of communities of color, cementing a shift energized by Thompson’s victory, where the conversation in Brooklyn is not about which candidate will be toughest, but who will most dramatically reform the office, building on Thompson’s accomplishments, which include ending the prosecution of certain low-level offenses and beginning the process of negating hundreds of thousands of outstanding arrest warrants related to such offenses. Thompson’s conviction review unit, which has exonerated 23 wrongfully convicted people, has become a model for prosecutors around the city and country, something Gonzalez has continued to prioritize..

The other candidates, including prosecutors Marc Fliedner, Patricia Gatling, Ama Dwimoh, Anne Swern, and City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who is term-limited, have largely sought to present themselves as the most progressive of the bunch. However, with similar messaging and overlapping resumes -- all except for Gentile worked under Hynes during his scandal-marred tenure -- the candidates have largely failed to distinguish themselves from each other during forums and in interviews. The only one striking a slightly more moderate tone is Gentile, who touts the accomplishments of City Council to reform the system legislatively.

The fact that Gonzalez was hand-picked by Thompson helped him accrue extensive institutional support early in the race, and made him an easy favorite among unions and donors. Helen Schaub, New York State policy and legislative director of 1199SEIU, the large and powerful healthcare workers union, noted that the union was an early backer of Thompson and therefore naturally trusted his chosen successor to continue his work as Brooklyn’s lead prosecutor.

“We met with a number of the candidates, and [Gonzalez’s] ability to actually make the changes and the fact that Ken Thompson trusted him to make those changes made him the obvious choice for endorsement,” said Schaub.

Gonzalez won over feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who cited his initiative to tackle sexual assault on college campuses, his efforts to protect immigrants in courts, and his history as a domestic-violence prosecutor. Gonzalez also had a head start on fundraising, pulling in well over $1 million over the course of his campaign. Swern has raised about half that, but the other candidates fall far behind, with Fliedner consistently lagging farthest. Fliedner held just $11,000 in his account at the time of his 11-day pre-primary Board of Elections filings.

Dwimoh, one of two black women in the race along with Gatling, has a compelling story and some name recognition in the borough as a top aide to Borough President Eric Adams, but her claim that she left Hynes’ office because she disagreed with the direction it was headed in did not ring true after her fellow candidates -- some of them former colleagues -- pointed out that she had been investigated and pressured to resign for allegedly mistreating her subordinates.

“Ama is the only candidate who publically rejected Joe Hynes and supported Ken Thompson and worked on the campaign with Ken to develop his agenda,” said Dwimoh’s spokesperson, Evan Thies, repeating his client’s refrain from throughout the campaign. Citing her work at Adams’ office, Dwimoh says her focus would be on fixing the root causes of crime, like lack of adequate housing or social programs in low-income communities.

Fliedner, who as former chief of Thompson’s civil rights bureau successfully prosecuted then-NYPD officer Peter Liang for the shooting of an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, in 2016, has presented some of the most ambitious plans for incarceration alternatives and elimination of predatory bail practices. Fliedner left Thomson’s office to start his own civil rights practice last June, and has expressed disappointment Liang’s conviction was downgraded from manslaughter to criminally negligent homicide. Thompson ultimately recommended no jail time for the officer. Fliedner has support from Gurley’s family and other relatives of victims of police violence, but has failed to raise a significant amount of money to help get his message out and build more name recognition.

Gatling has her own civil rights record as former head of the city’s Human Rights Commission, though the agency was criticized for inaction on her watch, and critics have noted that she moved back to Brooklyn from Manhattan fairly recently.

Swern, who at the district attorney’s officer ran its Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) program and is active in local political clubs, has the backing of several prominent Democrats in Northern Brooklyn, including state Senator Daniel Squadron, Assemblymember JoAnn Simon, and City Council Member Stephen Levin. She's also been endorsed by the Independent Neighborhood Democrats.

Several progressive political clubs in Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and other more affluent, mostly white areas of Brooklyn formally endorsed Gonzalez, though at least one club said its members were nearly split between the acting district attorney and Swern.

While no candidate came to the race with significant name recognition and no one has made a huge splash to garner more media attention, Brooklyn progressives say they welcome the lively discussion about reducing arrests for low level offenses, alternatives to incarceration, police accountability, expediting the closure of Rikers Island jails, bail reform strategies, and ideas for protecting undocumented immigrants amidst federal crackdowns.

Thompson’s 2013 victory was seen as a major upset in Brooklyn, and was the first in a series of victories for progressives and police reform advocates at district attorney offices across the nation.

Last year, Chicago’s Cook County elected its first black district attorney, Kim Foxx, who vowed to reform the county’s criminal justice system. In fall 2016, in Austin, Texas, progressive reformer Margaret Moore was elected to replace retiring District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg and took steps to immediately restructure the office by firing and reassigning dozens of staff attorneys. In May, Philadelphia voters picked Larry Krasner, a political outsider and former civil rights attorney who has defended Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street protesters free of charge, over six other Democratic newcomers, after disgraced “reformer” DA Seth Williams, also a Democrat, decided not to seek reelection following a federal corruption trial. 

“Nationally, people are paying a lot more attention to prosecutor accountability. Through the non-indictments of high profile cases involving officers, the public has learned what a prosecutor's powers can be and the direct influence they have on the way the criminal justice system works,” said Alyssa Aguilera, Co-Executive Director of VOCAL-NY Action Fund, which endorsed Gonzalez.

bk da field of candidates via errollouisAll of the candidates appear well aware of these political currents. Even Gentile, a former Queens prosecutor who represents one of Brooklyn’s last areas of Republican prowess and might have been expected to take a more moderate, tough-on-crime perspective, has preached a similar message of ending mass incarceration and the “broken windows” approach to aggressively enforcing quality of life offenses.

While the philosophical consensus may make for inconclusive debates, the conversation marks continued shift for the borough and is still fairly unprecedented, according to Brooklyn College sociology professor and criminal justice expert Alex Vitale.

“It's remarkable that for the most part the candidates seem to be vying against each other over who is the most progressive reformer. It's the most shocking development in terms of the DA race. Typically the debate is about who is the toughest on crime,” said Vitale.

Aguilera said that regardless of the outcome, she anticipates that the Brooklyn district attorney’s office will continue to set the tone across the nation.

The election also coincides with the early presidency of Donald Trump, whose administration has targeted immigrants, including those who may have committed low level, nonviolent offenses, which has blown political winds in New York City farther to left, so much so that even political foes on varying points of the Democratic spectrum are beginning to sound the same. During his tenure, Gonzalez has directed the attorneys under his charge to pursue charges in ways that limit exposure to possible immigration enforcement.

As the determinative primary vote approaches, ambivalence about the candidates is reflected across the borough. The New Kings Democrats, a progressive reform club that meets in Fort Greene and has pushed for the sort of changes being discussed in the district attorney race, met with all the candidates and along with other Democratic clubs in the area held a candidates forum in June. However, despite a “rich discussion” and extensive interviews with the six contenders, New Kings ultimately did not endorse anyone for district attorney, because no single candidate hit the NKD requirement for endorsement.

“Nobody meet the two-thirds threshold, so there was no consensus. But whoever wins we'll see what they do in office and hold them accountable to it,” said Anusha Venkataraman, president of NKD.

Among civil rights and police reform advocates serving Brooklyn’s communities of color, the sentiment is similar.

“Unlike when Thompson was running, and there were very clear distinguishing features, there’s no one who makes many of the folks I know want to run out and embrace a particular candidate,” said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, who noted that each candidate has issues with his or her campaign.

The Brooklyn Movement Center, which does not make endorsements, advocates for a variety of issues that impact low-to-middle-income neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn. According to Griffith, the rhetoric has been uninspiring to politically active black New Yorkers. “If you are not part of the political establishment or have some sort of compelling interest, I think that people are having a hard time distinguishing one from the other or feeling particularly enthusiastic about one or the other. There’s not a lot hinging on purely philosophical grounds. Gonzalez is clearly the frontrunner and it’s easy to see why some might find it expedient to support him.”

While Gonzalez’s public appearances at forums and debates are less impassioned and memorable than some of his challengers, he has showcased his competence and experience in one-on-one interviews, according to a member of the local Working Families Party chapter.

Aguilera, whose organization endorsed Gonzalez early on, agreed. "He is a smart person, he spent a lot of time with us talking a lot about policy, knows how to run the office, and he's followed through on some commitments already to enact some reform. He grew up poor in Brooklyn from a Latino community; he understands directly and that carries a lot of weight in a race where everyone is saying the same thing,” Aguilera said. “We see comradery and potential from a person who has lived through what low-income communities of color have been through."

While Swern and Fliedner bring passion and stage presence to debates, whereas Gonzalez is relatively subdued, their remarks may come across as disingenuous pandering to communities of color. At a recent forum hosted by Faith in New York Action Committee in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Swern appeared to be the favored candidate of those in attendance. Her impassioned criticism of the injustices with predatory bail practices were punctuated by cheers from the crowd, including shouts of “We love you, Anne!” Outside, a disproportionate number of canvassers for Swern, clad in “Black Lives Caucus” shirts, handed out fliers.

Later, Gatling’s campaign accused Swern of paying the canvassers at the event -- a claim Swern and the Black Lives Caucus, a spinoff group of the Black Lives Matter movement, denies.

“This is essentially making a mockery of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Gatling in a statement. “This kind of behavior fosters an ongoing climate of racial tension when someone uses the deaths of African-American men as a political ploy to gain entrance and votes from the African-American community.”

At the same event, Dwimoh called out Fliedner, who is white, after he declared that he was the only person on the stage willing to say “Black Lives Matter” out loud.

“I don't have to say 'Black Lives Matter,'” Dwimoh retorted. "I live it. I am a black woman in America. How dare you!"

While he said he doesn’t necessarily doubt any candidate’s sincerity, when it comes to this type of pandering, Griffith believes “the average, progressive, politically active black person is going to roll their eyes.”

Local elections often come down to money and endorsements -- and the canvassing and get out the vote efforts they can both produce -- and other factors that can sometimes tip the scales in favor of one candidate. With a crowded field of little-known candidates in what is expected to be a low-turnout primary, it is hard to decipher how the election will go, other than to say that Gonzalez has had several clear advantages.

The primary election for Brooklyn District Attorney takes place on Tuesday, September 12, and the Democratic nominee will be the presumptive winner of the seat.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Can Anyone Defeat Eric Gonzalez for Brooklyn DA? Thu, 07 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Two Very Different Democratic Assembly Primaries in Brooklyn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6507:two-different-democratic-assembly-primaries-in-brooklyn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6507:two-different-democratic-assembly-primaries-in-brooklyn Pam Harris voting via Facebook

Assemblymember Harris votes (photo via Facebook)


Among the upcoming legislative primary elections, two Brooklyn State Assembly races with very different storylines are intensifying. Unusual electoral circumstances in the 44th and 46th Assembly Districts make the contests races to watch. Located in Downtown Brooklyn, the 44th seat, which is opening up due to the retirement of the longtime incumbent, is home to a short, frenzied primary race among three Democrats. In the 46th, an embattled short-term incumbent and an experienced Democratic challenger battle for the Southern Brooklyn seat.

In the 46th, former Assemblymember Alec Brook-Krasny resigned in July 2015 to take a private sector job and Pamela Harris won the seat in a November special election. Now, with less than a year of experience in the Assembly, Harris faces Kate Cucco, who served as chief of staff for Brook-Krasny from 2008 to 2015.  

In the 44th, Assemblymember James Brennan announced his sudden retirement from public office this past May, just eights days before the candidate filing deadline. He simultaneously backed the race’s apparent frontrunner, Robert Carroll, who had been running for District Leader and eyeing an Assembly bid down the road. Two other Democrats, Troy Odendhal and Rob Curry-Smithson, announced their candidacy soon after.

One primary features two women, the other three men. In one, the 46th, establishment Democrats are divided between the two candidates, while in the other, the 44th, most Democratic elected officials and clubs are coalescing behind one candidate.

While these races show interesting decisions within the city’s Democratic machinery, the two districts reflect the common socioeconomic contrasts of neighboring communities in New York City. District 44 includes both Park Slope, a neighborhood that, according to a 2010-2012 Census report, had a median household income of $87,896, and Flatbush, at $42,144 per household.  

District 46 includes similar economic disparities, with communities like Bay Ridge, home to a median household income of $53,500, and Coney Island, at $29, 712.

Assembly District 46
Cucco, who is from Ohio but has called Bay Ridge home for a number of years, says that all residents of the district raise similar concerns no matter their income.

“Every group, whether you’re in Dyker Heights or Coney Island or Sea Gate, everyone wants the same thing,” she told Gotham Gazette. “They want to feel safe when they’re walking outside, they want to know their kids and grandkids are going to the best school possible.”

Cucco says her experience working for the residents of the district as Brook-Krasny’s chief of staff makes her a stronger candidate than the incumbent, Harris, the first black Assembly candidate to win a majority white district in New York City’s history.

“I worked for the Assembly, in this district, for almost nine years,” Cucco said during an interview at the Bridgeview Diner, a Bay Ridge restaurant. “I think that opens a lot of doors and a lot of connections in terms of knowing how to fight for legislation.”

If elected, Cucco says election reform remains at the top of her legislative to-do list.

“For such a progressive state, we’re so behind the curve on where we stand with elections,” she said. “I think we should make it easier for all constituents, members of the state, to vote.” Despite New York’s notoriously antiquated election and voting laws, little movement has been made on reform.

Like Cucco, Assemblymember Harris, who grew up in the district, says she finds the interests of residents to be similar in most neighborhoods.

“There is such diverse groups of people who are all striving for the same thing,” Harris said in a phone interview. “Safety, affordable housing, good places for their kids to play and good school programs.”

Harris, a former corrections officer at Rikers and native of Coney Island, said she represents all of her constituents and does not see the division between police and communities of color that has been the focus of much discussion.

“I didn’t know there was a divide, honestly,” Harris said when asked about representing both constituencies. “I think we just have to remember the need of the district. We have to make sure there is no need in the district and I was able to champion that in my first six months of office.”

Harris said addressing personal issues about her family continues to be the most challenging part of the campaign. The Daily News reported that Harris and her husband filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and there have been multiple reports detailing questions about the nonprofit she founded, the Coney Island Generation Gap, and its tax filings. Harris publicly responded to the Daily News report and addressed the reasons behind her bankruptcy, including health issues for her and other family members.

“I now have to explain what happened to me,” Harris said. “I’m okay with talking about me, but I don’t want to take the time out to do so. Yes, I did deal with Chapter 13. But unfortunately, I had breast cancer and I had a really bad strain. My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My husband got sick.”

“But you know, wait, don’t worry about me,” she continued, and asked rhetorically, “What is it you need? What is it that you would like me to do?” Harris said that she wants the focus of the campaign to be constituents’ needs, not her personal issues.

Cucco recently released a 70-Point Policy plan which focuses on election reform, in addition to free SUNY and CUNY tuition for students with at least a B average and improving access to affordable housing.

If re-elected, Harris said she hopes to continue to fight for the large senior population in District 46 through affordable housing and social engagement programs. A bill authored by Harris aimed at helping residents in naturally occurring retirement homes qualify for state funding was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month.

A flashpoint in the race is the involvement of outside Super PACs, which have been spending on behalf of both Cucco and Harris. The issue was at the center of contentious exchanges during a Thursday evening debate on NY1's Inside City Hall, with the main issue at hand a state bill for an education tax credit that would mainly benefit donors to private schools. Harris' nonprofit also came up during the NY1 debate.

The winner of the 46th District Democratic primary will face Lucretia Regina-Potter, of the Republican Party, Mikhail Usher, of the Conservative Party, and Patrick Dwyer, of the Green Party, in the general election. In an overwhelmingly Democratic district, that candidate’s party will be favored to win.

Assembly District 44
In State Assembly District 44, three Democrats fight for the seat being left vacant by Assemblymember James Brennan, who announced in May that after 32 years in office he will not seek re-election. Brennan announced his retirement and endorsed attorney Robert Carroll. Carroll, who identifies as a progressive and actively supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, dropped out of the District Leader race to pursue the open seat.

The somewhat surprising vacancy and endorsement brought criticism from Troy Odendhal, a community developer and freelance journalist who is running for the seat in the Democratic primary. “With such short notice on the vacancy of the seat, this was used as tactic by the democratic machine to overtly exclude potential candidates in the 44th Assembly District,” reads a statement on Odendhal’s website.

Odendhal filed an objection with the Board of Elections against his challenger regarding the signatures Carroll collected to get on the ballot. According to Kings County Politics, Odendhal’s campaign found errors with the petitions, including signatures of individuals who live out of the district, without addresses listed or names written in illegible handwriting. Carroll filed more than 7,300 signatures; Odendhal 870 (the required number to get on the ballot is 500).

A third candidate, Rob Curry-Smithson, a history teacher who, like Carroll, campaigned for Bernie Sanders, describes himself not only as a “Berniecrat” but as “an educator, not the establishment,” on his campaign’s website.

Curry-Smithson channels Sanders’ rhetoric when talking about public education and healthcare. In an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, he explained the reason behind his reform campaign, and referred to the process by which Brennan was attempting to choose replacement.

“I also was concerned that there seemed to be no competition, but a passing of the torch from someone who has been in office since I was two years old to a successor chosen by the party establishment,” he wrote in an email to the Eagle.  

Carroll not only has the backing of Brennan, but a long list of Democratic officials and organizations, including New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, the Working Families Party, and the New York State United Teachers labor union.

According to his campaign website, if elected to office, Carroll hopes to improve ethics in Albany, institute paid sick leave as well as strengthen gun control laws.

As expected, he leads in fundraising. Carroll has received $98,217 for his Assembly run as of July, according to his State Board of Elections filings. Odendhal, who is self-funding his campaign, has spent about $5446.00 on his campaign, as of late July filings, and Curry-Smithson has no fundraising recorded to date.

The winner of the District 44 Democratic primary will face Republican candidate Glenn Nocera, president of the Brooklyn Tea Party, who has also the Conservative Party line on the ballot, in the November general election. If successful in the Democratic primary, Carroll is set to have the Working Families Party ballot line in November.

Heading to Albany
Democrats have a large majority in the state Assembly and winners of the 44th and 46th District Democratic primaries are likely to be part of that majority in Albany when the State Legislature reconvenes in January. The results of November’s general elections will determine control of the state Senate, which has been led by Republicans over most of the past several decades, but where the balance of power is almost evenly split.

Turnout for the September 13 primaries is not expected to be high, especially given that it is the third primary date of this election year in New York, after the April presidential primary and June congressional primary. November is likely to be a different story, though, with the presidential race drawing more voters to the ballot box.

Cucco, running in the 46th AD, said the over-saturation of the presidential campaign may inspire residents to get more involved this election cycle.

“I think that everything that’s happening on the national level this year, you know with both parties, people, whether they like or don’t like the national candidates running for president, they’re hyper aware of the sense of local government and its importance,” she said.

***
by Devin Gannon for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected regarding the timing of Brennan's retirement announcement and how much time there was for candidates to get on the ballot.

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Two Very Different Democratic Assembly Primaries in Brooklyn Thu, 01 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
The Urban Agenda Our Growing Cities Demand http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6461:the-urban-agenda-our-growing-cities-demand http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6461:the-urban-agenda-our-growing-cities-demand eric adams home conversions

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the author (photo via @BPEricAdams)


Communities like what we have in Brooklyn represent the future of the United States — vibrant places where people from around the world come to achieve their ambitions.

After many years in which many of our great cities declined in stature, young professionals and couples now want to build their careers and start families in urban America, and older adults want to enjoy their golden years in cities as well. I often say that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who live in Brooklyn and those who wish they could. The numbers bear that out: our borough now has its highest population in history, representing what would be the fourth-largest city in the country — standing apart from the rest of New York City — with more than 2.6 million residents and growing.

As every teenager experiences a few growing pains, the rapid growth of cities from coast to coast has created some challenges. Many families that have lived in Brooklyn for generations now fear that their income will not support a middle-class life, with rents in some neighborhoods increasing by double digit percentages every year. Our subway platforms have become a crush of elbows and shoulders as commuters struggle to pack themselves into trains during rush hour. And even as crime has declined in New York City, the safest big city in America, there are communities where violence is a persistent threat, where parents are afraid to let their children play outside and the sound of gunshots still punctuates the dark of night.

The Republican National Convention came to a close in Cleveland with nary a word on the fundamental concerns of cities. While the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia touched on some of these matters through the party platform, we need to ask — better yet, demand — that leaders in both parties go deeper in reflecting on the problems of cities and offering solutions that will allow this country to remain preeminent in an era of continued urbanization. The federal government has the capacity and the duty to step up with this critical assistance, and should do so in the following areas:

Transportation
Every day, commuters living in the greatest city in the world enter subway stations that are more than a century old to crowd into trains that have been in service for decades, some since 1964. Most subway lines still lack countdown clocks. People riding city buses travel at an average rate of 7 MPH (about jogging speed). Our parkways resemble parking lots.

The federal government just adopted a five-year, $305 billion transportation plan known as the FAST Act. Unfortunately, this bill spends nearly 80 percent of its funds on roads with the remainder devoted to mass transit. This allocation fails to account for either the needs of urban commuters who depend on subways, buses, and ferries, or the declining percentage of people throughout the United States who travel by car. A more flexible program that allows individual states to focus their resources on the areas of greatest need would provide New York and other cities with additional resources to build modern mass transit systems.

The federal government must establish a long-term source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, which now remains in operation only as a result of gimmicks in the budget that will expire in a few years. Many mass transit projects require several years (or even decades) to complete. A guaranteed investment would eliminate the uncertainty that now exists, which prevents cities and states from developing regional transportation plans to prepare for the needs of future generations.

In addition, commuters should have more flexibility with their transit tax benefits, which allow for pre-tax payments for commuter rail, subway, buses, and parking. There are many people who drive their car to a subway station, then ride the train to work, or alternate on different days, and who should have the option of allocating their payments as desired. Commuters who travel by bicycle also deserve to have the full monthly benefit of the program ($250 rather than $20).

Affordable Housing
The rapid gentrification of New York City has contributed to an affordable housing crisis in which more than half of the families who rent their homes are considered “rent-burdened,” paying more than one-third of their income in rent. There are almost 60,000 people sleeping in homeless shelters each night in New York City — the most since the Great Depression — and many more families living in substandard apartments.

Yet most federal spending on housing primarily benefits high-income homeowners in suburban areas, with the mortgage interest deduction, the property tax deduction, and the partial exclusion of capital gains from the sale of a home. None of these investments are necessarily unwise, but the federal government should consider the two-thirds of New York City residents who rent their homes, the rising number of senior citizens with low to very low incomes, and the increasing number of young people who are renting nationwide. If we are serious about addressing homelessness and the societal challenges that rising housing costs pose to urban America, then Washington’s priorities need to reflect real reform.

It is well past time for the federal government to restore and expand funds to the critical Section 8 rental subsidy. In New York City, the program has not been accepting new applications since 2009, resulting in a scramble for those in need to benefit from the “recycling” of vouchers and forcing many participants to relocate to small apartments that often require a parent and child or unrelated members of a household to share a bedroom. Beyond Section 8 and Section 202 (designated for affordable senior housing), our city’s public housing residents depend on adequate funding to keep their developments maintained to a livable standard. The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) initiative has allowed agencies like NYCHA to leverage their debt and equity for reinvestment in their capital renovations, and it will be up to the next administration to advance this forward.

Going further, we need to jumpstart efforts that would connect the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to more households through the income averaging reform bill currently stalled in Congress, a measure that would bring needed flexibility to a housing market like New York City’s as well as vital financial resources to keep roofs over the heads of hard-working families without crippling rent burdens.

We also need a Justice Department that actively prosecutes housing discrimination, which has contributed to the crisis. This includes combating rampant tenant harassment by unscrupulous landlords looking to game the system. Some zoning regulations effectively prevent the development of affordable housing that would allow a diverse community to flourish, and the federal government should consider the disparate impact of these restrictions. DOJ should additionally work to prevent discrimination in mortgage lending — in which people of color are offered loans with higher interest rates — that has contributed to many foreclosures.

Gun Violence
The deadly consequences of gun violence continue to threaten families and children in Brooklyn. In neighborhoods such as Brownsville and East New York, homicides and other violent crimes are still disproportionately high. Other cities such as Baltimore and Chicago have, this year, experienced substantial increases in violent crime, which threatens the public safety.

The tide of violence has been swelled by a flood of illegal guns into New York City, which (with New York State), has some of the most restrictive laws in the nation, preventing individuals who present a threat to themselves or other people from owning handguns. Most of the guns used in violent crimes in New York City were purchased in other states and illegally trafficked here, through an “Iron Pipeline” that stretches from Georgia to Virginia and other states that allow gun sales even without identification. Chicago has a similar problem with guns sold in Indiana.

We need common sense reform that only the federal government can provide. Cities are depending on Congress to prohibit gun traffickers from buying large quantities of guns and ammunition to sell in our streets, as well as to institute universal background checks that would prevent criminals from entering the arms trade. Moreover, we need dedicated federal prosecutors who will work with local district attorneys and law enforcement agencies to end the epidemic of gun violence, as well as the ability for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to require that guns include safety features to prevent accidents or unauthorized uses.

According to the most recent Census, more than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, a figure that is continuing to climb upward. As the importance of cities grows, so does the need for a proper debate between leaders of the major political parties about the best way to address the challenges facing urban America and the possibilities that exist when the federal government works in cooperation with its municipal partners.


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Eric L. Adams is Brooklyn Borough President. On Twitter @BPEricAdams.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Urban Agenda Our Growing Cities Demand Sun, 31 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000
The Right Model to Follow for Diversity at Specialized High Schools http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6218:the-right-model-to-follow-for-diversity-at-specialized-high-schools http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6218:the-right-model-to-follow-for-diversity-at-specialized-high-schools debaters nyc schools

Student debaters (photo: @NYCschools)

 


 

Last week, 5,000 eighth graders got the exciting news that they were offered admission to one of the city's eight test-in Specialized High Schools, which offer a quality public school education unmatched in the country. But while the vast majority come from poor, working class and immigrant families, as has always been the case, once again far too few come from the black and Latino communities.

Black and Latino students comprise a large majority in the city's public school system and should be better represented among those offered admission to its top high schools. Unfortunately, this year about 500 fewer black and Latino students sat for the test compared to last year, and the percentage of these students offered admission declined as well.

The school system, like the city it serves, is heavily segregated, but this lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our test-in schools is unacceptable for many reasons. Still, doing away with the test as the sole criteria for deciding admission and switching to inherently subjective multiple criteria would do little to ameliorate the imbalance and could make it worse according to last year's study by NYU's Institute for Education and Social Policy.

The city must instead invest the resources – both financial and intellectual – and take proactive steps on both a long-term and an immediate basis in order to diversify admissions to our best schools.

A program of enriched educational opportunity must be instituted in every neighborhood to permit all children to have a fair chance of success on the test and in life. Gifted and Talented Programs must exist in every district. Enriched education, especially in math and English language courses, must be available in every middle school in the city. When 53 percent of the students at test-in schools come from only 15 percent of middle schools, the fundamental answer to the problem of underrepresentation is clear.

Immediate actions must be taken to increase the numbers of students from underrepresented communities sitting for the test. And, increased attention must be paid to better preparing underrepresented students to do well enough on the test to gain admission. There is no fixed passing grade on the test. "Passing" is simply a function of scoring high enough to rank among the 5,000 highest scoring students to qualify for admission to one of the schools.

The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, with the support of National Grid, has worked with Brooklyn Tech to run an innovative pilot STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Pipeline program for the past three years that reaches out to underrepresented middle schools, identifies children of promise and provides them with accelerated coursework and test prep. The program starts with rising seventh graders and offers them an intensive two year experience with classes during the summers and on Saturdays during the school year.

We have had good success during the first two years that students in the program have sat for the test. This year, students received offers from Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Latin, all specialized schools. Half of last year's students in the program – and nearly two-thirds this year – offered admission to Tech are black or Latino.

We are encouraged by the support for diversity at specialized high schools shown by Albany legislators in both chambers who are proposing dedicating funds to create similar pipeline programs in every test-in school. This would cost less than $1.3 million a year, or $2.5 million over two years, and enable all eight specialized high schools to run outreach and test preparation programs in underrepresented middle schools throughout the city.

While Mayor de Blasio is committed to combatting educational and economic inequality, it is still the case that a child's chances of educational success are closely correlated to where he or she grows up. Because test-in schools should serve students from every neighborhood, there is a special obligation to give all promising students tools to succeed.

The answer is not to do away with an admissions test, but to make that promise of social equality real by committing resources and intellectual firepower so that every academically promising child, regardless of their neighborhood, has a fair chance of succeeding on the test, and beyond.

***
Larry Cary is president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Right Model to Follow for Diversity at Specialized High Schools Thu, 10 Mar 2016 23:43:09 +0000
City Council Raises Provoke Questions About Staff Pay http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6211:city-council-pay-raises-provoke-questions-about-staff-pay http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6211:city-council-pay-raises-provoke-questions-about-staff-pay city council members budget announcement

Members of the City Council (photo: William Alatriste) 


As New York City Council members voted on a package of legislation that increased their salaries from $112,500 to $148,500, aides to two Council members stood silently in the balcony of the Council chambers, wearing white t-shirts that read, “Paycheck to Paycheck, Pay Raises for All.”

The $36,000 salary bump for Council members is about the same amount of money that many of their staff members make in a year. These are aides filling roles such as communications director, scheduler, and community liaison. Chiefs of staff usually make quite a bit more. At a hearing on the bills two days before the vote, several Council members spoke in support of also providing pay raises to their staff members. The silent demonstration by staffers from the offices of Council Members Inez Barron and Rosie Mendez was itself a coordinated effort done with the support of Barron and Mendez.

City Council members set the salaries of their staff members and decide how many aides to employ - the average staff size is about seven. The amount Council members choose to spend on salaries comes out of their office budgets, which are set by the Council Speaker’s office.

City Council members say that a push to increase member budgets was initiated when it became clear that Council members themselves would be getting raises. In early February, at about the same time the Council was voting through raises for all city elected officials, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito provided Council members with about $29,500 each in additional funding for their offices.

“In my tenure, I have increased the budgets of Council members, and I plan to do that again,” Mark-Viverito said at a Feb. 18 event organized by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

According to information obtained by Gotham Gazette through a Freedom of Information Act request, most Council members are now receiving a total of $409,000 to run their offices in the current fiscal year (FY 2016).

That $409,000 is used by Council members to pay the rent for their district offices, the salaries of their staff members, and OTPS, or other than personal services, which include supplies, equipment, contractual services, and other operating expenses. The recent $29,500 bump will allow Council members to give raises to their staffers, if they so choose.

Even with an increase to staff salaries, aides and Council members alike criticize current dynamics, which, they say, leave staff members significantly underpaid and overworked. Members argue that they are forced into a no-win decision whether to hire fewer staff members or pay more aides less and decry a situation where they lose staff to higher-paying government jobs at city agencies. They also say that current pay structures diminish the professionalism of Council staff and some call for more drastic increases to their office budgets.

“The mayor’s office and city agencies can easily poach employees from the City Council, draining it of institutional memory,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres, himself a former Council aide. “You have City Council staff who are performing professional functions on complex matters of budgeting, land use, and policy, without professional salaries. You have City Council staffers who do overtime without receiving overtime. And if you were to divide the salary of a dedicated Council staffer by the number of hours worked, the City Council may very well be guilty of wage slavery.”

Council Member Helen Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette that “as soon as the Mayor said he was calling for the quadrennial [compensation] commission and they started to meet…one of the things I started pressing for in the Council among ourselves as a body is if we’re going to be put in a situation where we’re giving ourselves raises, I’m not sure I can do that without giving my staff a raise.”

As mandated by law, Mayor de Blasio appointed an independent commission to review the salaries of elected officials last September, setting off a process that concluded on Feb. 19, when the mayor signed into law a package of legislation raising the salaries of all New York City elected officials. This includes the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, five borough presidents, five district attorneys, and 51 City Council members.

The City Council held a hearing on the legislation Feb. 3, and approved the package of raises and reforms on Feb. 5.

Rosenthal and other Council members expressed concern about the salaries of their aides to Mark-Viverito, and say that the speaker has responded to those concerns. “Members have been speaking on behalf of our staff,” said Council Member Jumaane Williams, “this is something that I’ve brought up before, and I’m very happy that the speaker is receptive.”

“The speaker is adding money - the same amount of money to each of our lump sums [office budgets],” Rosenthal said. “I will be allocating that for staff salaries, and I’m relieved and grateful for that.”

The budget increase, like Council members’ salary increase, is retroactive to Jan. 1, making it part of the current fiscal year 2016 budget. Council members and Mark-Viverito may look to include another increase during fiscal year 2017. The FY17 city budget is being negotiated and will go into effect July 1.

Equalizing most members’ office budgets is a part of Mark-Viverito’s efforts to reform and democratize the City Council. In fiscal year 2015, about half of the City Council received $382,000 for their office budgets, while other members received $377,000. Council sources say this is another example of Mark-Viverito moving away from the practices of her predecessors, who used funding levels - both for office budgets and discretionary money to award nonprofits - to exercise control, reward allies, and punish those who were seen as out of step.

Under Mark-Viverito, five Council members have received more than others for their office budgets. For the current fiscal year, chair of the finance committee Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the land use committee David Greenfield, and Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer all receive about $70,000 more to run their offices, with an annual budget of $479,000. Each of these three is provided increased funding based on heightened levels of responsibility.

Council Member Donovan Richards, whose district includes the Rockaways and requires him to run two offices, receives $454,000 this year. Council Member Alan Maisel has the highest office budget of any Council member - $489,000 annually - $80,000 above the majority of Council members.

When asked why his office budget was so much higher than that of the average Council member, Maisel told Gotham Gazette, “I have no idea. I don’t know what the reason is - maybe something built in from a previous Council member? I don’t know.” Maisel seemed surprised to hear he receives a larger office budget than other Council members, and asked what others receive.

The speaker’s office was also unable to specify why Maisel receives a significantly higher office budget, saying only that the speaker retains the discretion to provide additional resources in limited circumstances - such a leadership positions, committee responsibilities, and hardship. Maisel succeeded Lew Fidler on the Council starting in 2014, the same year Mark-Viverito became speaker.

In a statement, Council Member Richards explained to Gotham Gazette that he receives more for his office budget because “In District 31, we cover a large diverse constituency that has vastly different needs, from Southeast Queens, all the way to the Rockaways. The geographical distance between the two areas requires two district offices to handle the constituent caseload and day-to-day services more efficiently, which also requires additional staff to meet the needs of residents throughout the district.”

Simply increasing Council members’ office budgets does not guarantee their staff members will receive a raise. Some Council members may choose to distribute the added $27,000-$32,000 in a way that gives each of their aides a pay raise, others may use the money to hire one additional staff member. Some Council members may not even use the added funds for salaries, but rather, to pay rent for a better office space or an additional office, or use it for OTPS.

The $409,000 most Council members currently receive to run their offices creates a certain sense of equity, but does not take into account differing needs. Office rent may be higher on the Upper East Side than on Staten Island, for example, while Council members serving poverty-stricken districts may have cause to provide more robust constituent services than others, requiring them to hire additional constituent liaisons. Some Council members may need to offer different language services to their constituents.

“My rent, I’m pretty sure, is twice as high as some of the members in the Bronx,” Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, said. “And certainly, my staff, who mainly live in the district, probably need a little bit higher salaries to be able to stay, as opposed to someone in the Bronx. It’s a reality that I find challenging.”

“Some of us have more demands on our staff than others, and there’s no recognition of that,” said Council Member Barron, who represents Brownsville and other parts of Brooklyn. Though office rent in poorer districts may be more affordable, Barron says, Council members representing “the Upper East Side, Upper West Side don’t have the same kinds of problems in terms of dealing with their constituents, agencies, and the problems that some of us in the more impoverished neighborhoods have. I think there should be some consideration of that.”

Council Member Williams, who represents Flatbush and other parts of Brooklyn, also points to differences in demands on district offices. “Some districts have a high, high volume of constituent services, some districts have a lower amount, there are some districts that focus more on legislation,” Williams explained. “The needs of every district’s very different, you may have a constituent liaison that sees one person every day, and another that sees one person every hour.”

Council members may hire as many staffers as they see fit, and the number of people they employ as well as the positions they name largely depend on the differing needs of their districts. Staff listings indicate Council members employ an average of seven aides, with some employing as many as nine or as few as four.

Council members must choose between hiring a smaller staff and paying each aide more, or hiring more and paying each less.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Council Member Antonio Reynoso, a former Council staffer himself, told Gotham Gazette. “Either we have three staff members and pay them a good amount for what they’re worth, or we have eight members and everyone’s taking a hit.”

Council Member Torres, who represents parts of the Bronx, told Gotham Gazette he is currently experiencing some staff turnover, which he is “using to prioritize pay increases for existing staff. Even though there’s a real need for added capacity and more staffers.” Torres says he is choosing not to hire additional staff “because I cannot allow my staffers to earn what is an abysmal wage. It’s a death wage in some senses.”

Staffers often end up filling numerous roles, with aides in many offices serving as both legislative director and budget director, legislative liaison and scheduler, or director of communications and legislation. Council aides are often in their twenties, working long hours, and eyeing other, higher-paying positions in government.

Salaries for the same position can vary widely across offices, with Council members’ chiefs of staff - the highest paid staff position - receiving between $37,700 and $92,000 annually, according to 2015 payroll records compiled by The Empire Center. Most communications directors received between $28,700 and $50,000.

During the only hearing on the package of bills that raised the salaries of Council members by $36,000 and modified rules by which members earn additional money, Council members defended the raise by pointing out how hard they work, that their responsibilities have increased over the years, and that they work long hours. The workload of Council aides has increased as well.

“We work more than 60 hours a week,” Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said during the Feb. 3 hearing. “For me, this is a big compromise that we’re doing…our salaries should be $175,000,” added Rodriguez, who in 2015 paid his seven staffers at least $15,038 and at most $56,231.

In December, Speaker Mark-Viverito submitted a letter to the quadrennial commission describing the Council’s workload and reasons why Council members deserve a raise. “Each Member represents on average about 160,000 New Yorkers,” Mark-Viverito wrote, and “the time commitment for Council Members is considerable and most describe their jobs as ‘24/7,’ requiring them to be available around-the-clock.”

“Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session,” Mark-Viverito added.

Given Council members’ rationale that their workload has increased and they therefore deserve a raise, Joy Simmons, chief of staff for Council Member Barron, told Gotham Gazette she believes “staff members should also get raises, because the burden of that work falls on our shoulders…there’s many staff members living paycheck to paycheck."

“Many Council members work ’24/7,’ but their staffs do as well,” said Simmons, who was one of the staff members to stand in silent protest at the Feb. 5 vote - she also testified before the Council on Feb. 3. “We’re working way more than 40 hours and not getting overtime, and there’s no provision to make more, and if you don’t work those hours they’ll find someone else who will.”

“My staff definitely works more than 40 hours a week,” Reynoso said. “My staff works just as hard, if not harder, than me, they’re out there every day, in meetings, in the nighttime. They represent me, so when I can’t go somewhere, they’re out there.”

“There are staffers that are coming in the office at 9 a.m. and are done at their community board meetings at 9 p.m.,” Torres said, “and you’re receiving $25,000, $30,000, $35,000 a year? That’s absurd. That’s unlivable.”

Low wages aren’t only hurting staffers - they diminish the professionalism of the City Council itself, Council members argue, and lead to a high turnover rate. Torres, Williams, and Reynoso believe Council members are given too few resources to adequately compensate their aides, causing Council members’ offices to become “a training ground for other agencies or other companies, because they see the work that the staff does, and they come and get them and we just can’t compete because there’s not enough money,” in Williams’ words.

Reynoso says staffers often leave for similar positions in the mayor’s office that pay $60,000 a year - nearing the high end of what Council aides are paid. Other opportunities in city government abound. The Department of Education has six employees who do communications work - the highest paid among them (senior advisor to Chancellor Fariña for communications and external affairs) earned $177,235 in 2015. The DOE’s top press secretary earned $114,987, while the three deputy press secretaries made $69,065, $44,603, and $25,992, according to Empire Center payroll records. A DOE assistant press secretary made $54,685

“We’re like the minor leagues,” Reynoso said. “Many of our staff members get taken away from us to work in jobs that pay substantially more, we can’t compete. So we end up doing all the training, all the development, and then after a year, they’re gone…It takes away from the professionalism that we have at our office.”

Reynoso said that for certain types of work Council members do, such as land use, it would be ideal to hire a planner with a Master’s degree, yet because Council members are unable to offer them a competitive wage, they end up hiring someone who may not be a planner, but knows about planning, meaning the city ends up without “the top professionals to do these things that are an important part of our job.”

Though the added funds to Council members’ office budgets may “help us get closer to fairness,” Reynoso says, “it’s still nothing that can help us get competitive with the mayor’s office. Outside of doubling our staff budgets, it’s not going to be competitive.”

Ultimately, it is up to the Council speaker to set the office budgets for members. Yet, some question why Council members don’t push more aggressively for a significant increase to their office budgets to be included in the city budget.

“These Council members have supported other workers out there looking for pay increases and looking for protections within their industries - you know, airport workers, retail workers,” Ndigo Washington, legislative director for Council Member Barron, told Gotham Gazette, expressing dismay at the fact that Council members will so readily push for higher wages for other workers, but leave their own staffers poorly compensated.

More could be done to address the wage situation beyond simply increasing Council members’ office budgets. There should be standards, some Council members argue, for a minimum salary for a chief of staff, legislative director, budget director, deputy chief of staff, and all typical staff positions.

“I think there’s an argument for a minimum,” Torres said, which he said would likely require a change to Council rules.

A minimum standard could help, Council members and staffers say, though setting a uniform pay rate for certain positions is something to “be wary of,” according to Williams, given the vastly different roles and responsibilities of staffers from office to office.

In the state Assembly, members’ office rents and utilities are paid through the central office. If the City Council were to alter the rules to allow rent to be paid centrally, it could free up money in Council members’ office budgets to be used to better compensate staffers, assuming significant deductions in those budgets would not be made.

“Maybe the rent could be paid centrally,” Torres said, “so that it has no impact on the individual budgets of members.”

Another issue raised by Washington and Simmons, both aides to Council Member Barron, is ensuring raises for staffers. “We’ve been told in the past that we might get a cost of living increase,” Washington said, “but we don’t know.” There is also the lack of job security or protection, as staffers are considered at-will employees. Council sources say they was a cost of living increase in 2015, one that applied to Council employees (working on the Council central staff and for members) with qualifying longevity.

“What you have is a tale of two cities at City Hall,” said Council Member Torres. “You have egregious pay disparities in pay between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council...A poorly resourced City Council with poorly paid staff cannot possibly live up to its charter-mandated roles as a co-equal branch of government.”

“It’s a professional position and we’re reducing it to the status of a glorified internship,” he added, of aide roles.

Simmons says that she and her colleagues hope that the mayor and the Council will “pass a budget that includes raises for members of Council staff, and even central staff.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Raises Provoke Questions About Staff Pay Tue, 08 Mar 2016 00:01:45 +0000
Ten Days in the Life of a Police Reform Advocate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6197:ten-days-in-the-life-of-a-police-reform-advocate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6197:ten-days-in-the-life-of-a-police-reform-advocate prop nyc four members gangi

PROP volunteers, including the author (photo: @PROPNYC)


In a recent ten-day period I had experiences that taught me new things about bad NYPD practices, reinforced my cynicism about the lame way that mainstream politicians, including officials who self-identify as progressives, posture on policing issues, and strengthened my determination to press aggressively for fundamental and meaningful changes in NYPD policies. My organization, PROP - the Police Reform Organizing Project - continues to monitor NYPD practices and advocate for real change.

*On a monitoring visit to the Brooklyn criminal court -- PROP representatives and volunteers regularly observe proceedings in the arraignment parts of the city's criminal courts as a way of tracking NYPD 'broken windows' arrest practices -- I stood on a line of about 45 people waiting to pass through the metal detector. I was the only white person -- everyone else was African-American or Latino, the vast majority of whom dressed in clothes suggesting that they were members not of the well-to-do professional class, but of the low-income or working classes.

*On that morning, the Brooklyn misdemeanor arraignment part heard 34 cases, all men of color whom the police had arrested and locked up. Each of these men walked out of the courtroom, meaning essentially that no court official, including in most cases the prosecutors, considered the defendants dangerous or predatory. The charges included suspended license, theft of services (usually fare-beating), marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, and open alcohol container.

*At a meeting later that day, a fellow police reformer reported that he had recently attended a police/community meeting where neighborhood residents had a discussion with officials from the local precinct. The community members expressed concern about a recent armed robbery and asked what the police were doing about it. The officials responded by saying that they were "summonsing like crazy," meaning that police officers were issuing many criminal summonses to people in the neighborhood for representative 'broken windows' infractions/activities like being in the park after dark, littering, carrying an open alcohol container, or riding a bike on the sidewalk. Community members raised the pointed question: But what are you doing to actually investigate the crime and catch the perpetrators?

*At a meeting with a journalist and me, a police officer who is considering coming forward to publicize the ill effects of the NYPD's quota system on officers and New Yorkers alike, reported on the following matters: under the pressure to "make their numbers" each month, some officers working in a precinct with a cemetery within its borders will issue what are known as "cemetery summonses," meaning that they will enter the graveyard and write up tickets with the names of dead people that that they find on the tombstones. Some precincts - those that serve white well-to-do areas, for example - have no quotas. One of the first questions that an officer new to an inner-city precinct asks is: "What is the number?" And, again under the pressure of the quota system, some officers will for most of the month ignore a neighborhood "hot spot," a place where crime such as drug dealing or prostitution takes place in the open, and if they have not met their quotas, will round up the people at those sites at month's end.

*A PROP volunteer, a teacher who instructs students at night classes in the City College system, reported the following stories that he heard during a class discussion about discriminatory NYPD practices: two students of color, both women - one African-American and the other Latina - recounted unsettling encounters with officers on select buses in the Bronx. In one case the woman couldn't at first find the receipt when the officer approached her, so the officer began writing up the summons; she did eventually find it, but when she displayed it, the officer said that it was too late, that he had already filled out the ticket; she has refused to pay the fine and plans to fight the ticket. In the other case, the woman made a mistake in pressing the buttons of the ticket machine at the bus stop and ended up with 2 tickets for handicapped people which totaled the same amount, $2.50, as a regular ticket; the officer still issued a summons and, in this case, rather than take the time that she couldn't afford to oppose the summons, the woman paid the fine.

*PROP released an analysis of the NYPD's misdemeanor arrest practices for 2015, revealing that 87 percent of those arrests involved people of color compared to 85.8 percent in 2013 and 86.5 percent in 2014. To demonstrate the blatant racism associated with these practices, we focused on some specific kinds of arrests including theft of services, or fare-beating, which at 29,198 was the NYPD's most numerous arrest category for last year. Fully 92 percent involved people of color - in fact, in our year-and-a-half of court-monitoring work, we have observed only a handful of white defendants charged with theft of services. Spokespeople for City Hall and the Police Department made statements in response focused on safety on the subways, but that did not address the extraordinary racial imbalance reflected in the numbers that PROP had spotlighted.

Despite these numbers and accounts that demonstrate the undeniable racial bias and deep injustices involved in the NYPD's current application of quota-driven 'broken windows' policing, our city's leading politicians, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, announce and occasionally enact the softest kind of modifications that do nothing to fundamentally change or end the NYPD's abusive and discriminatory practices.

Out of political considerations - it would be too risky to promote the fundamental police reforms needed - they have effectively abandoned one of their main constituencies: low-income New Yorkers of color, leaving them to the harsh treatment and societal marginalization that result from the practices and policies of the NYPD and the city's criminal justice system.

It is up to us police reformers and other concerned New Yorkers to keep hammering away at these issues. Despite our frustration and disappointment of the moment, we know that silence will kill all hope of achieving our shared goal of a fair, safe, and inclusive city for all New Yorkers.

***
Bob Gangi is Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project. On Twitter @PROPNYC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Ten Days in the Life of a Police Reform Advocate Sat, 27 Feb 2016 14:20:35 +0000
What To Do When The L Train Closes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6129:what-to-do-when-the-l-train http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6129:what-to-do-when-the-l-train mta out of service

Out of service (photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


The denizens of Williamsburg and Bushwick have responded to news of potential multiyear L train closures with a mix of shock, despair, and irritation. People are talking through the alternatives: taking the G, J, and M trains; boarding the East River Ferry; or even (gasp!) riding the bus. Quite likely Williamsburgers will also summon a swarm of UberPools and Lyft Lines unlike any seen in our time.

Hysterics aside, it’s unlikely that the MTA would do a full, year-long double-tube shutdown. The most plausible plan is a long series of “nights and weekends” shutdowns for tube repairs, with the possibility of a brief total closure of both tubes to finish them “Fastrak”-style while rehabs of the 1st Avenue and Bedford stations and additional electrical substations are built. The latter service upgrades, which would permanently boost the line’s peak-hour capacity by 10 percent (a big deal for a subway line often at “crush” capacity during rush hour), depend on the timely success of Senator Chuck Schumer’s request to expedite federal funding. Nothing is certain until the upgrade funding comes through, but some Sandy-related stretch of nights-and-weekends closures is sure to come, as the MTA’s initial bid requests describe a contract lasting about 40 months.

If the MTA does indeed briefly close both tunnels—or even just one at a time—what should be done to limit the carnage? First, carpool restrictions (HOV-2, or even HOV-3) on the Williamsburg Bridge during train closures—just like during transit strikes and natural disasters. Previous nights-and-weekends closures of the L have brought “Carmageddon” to the bridge, especially during UberPool and Lyft Line promotions. Ensuring that solo drivers don’t hog every lane is a surefire way to keep everyone moving.

I personally remember the bridge congestion during the UberPool $2.75-a-ride L train closure special, as it was both the first time I shared an UberPool and the first time I rode with a carsick middle-aged woman being ill out the back window into the East River.

So to minimize the stop-and-go, nausea-inducing congestion—and maximize the potential efficiency of ridesharing services—the city should cooperate with the MTA in implementing HOV restrictions on the bridge, and even dedicating a lane to shuttle buses and the B39. It’s not at all radical to take away a car lane for more efficient transportation modes: The Williamsburg Bridge was built for streetcars.

This potential L train crisis is a reminder that better transit redundancy plans are needed for high-volume chokepoints, even if they inconvenience a comparatively small number of drivers. A truly radical long-term proposal would involve permanently replacing some car lanes with transit-only lanes and re-opening the abandoned streetcar terminal under Essex Street on the Manhattan side of the bridge. Current proposals include replacing the terminal with an odd subterranean mushroom park.

But if the real estate industry ever gets serious about funding a public-private waterfront streetcar through Williamsburg, perhaps restoring the rail lanes to the old streetcar terminal could be added to the plan. No matter what the MTA decides, the coming L train closures are an opportunity to start getting creative with our transportation systems and our waterfront. Let’s hope at least some of these mitigation proposals get a serious hearing.

***
Alex Armlovich is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. On Twitter @aarmlovi.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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What To Do When The L Train Closes Mon, 01 Feb 2016 01:04:28 +0000
Brooklyn Neighborhoods Look to Address School Overcrowding, Avoid Rezoning Issues Seen Elsewhere http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5951:brooklyn-neighborhoods-look-to-address-school-overcrowding-avoid-rezoning-issues-seen-elsewhere http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5951:brooklyn-neighborhoods-look-to-address-school-overcrowding-avoid-rezoning-issues-seen-elsewhere bk overcrowding forum

The community school forum (photo: @JoAnneSimonBK52) 


As rezoning problems plague some city school districts, leaders in one area of Brooklyn are looking to avoid similar pitfalls while reducing overcrowding.

In Carroll Gardens last week, local officials and parents gathered in the PS 58 auditorium to discuss overcrowding issues facing three elementary schools. Like others across the city, District 15 - which includes the schools at hand, PS 58, PS 32, and PS 29 - is facing challenges around booming development and school-aged populations, school crowding and zoning.

Wednesday’s forum, featuring several area elected officials, school leaders, and moderated by Professor David Bloomfield of CUNY, was an attempt to get ahead of these issues.

“Often when we’re dealing with overcrowding, we’re not able to address it until it’s a full-blown crisis,” said Paige Bellenbaum, a local district leader. A parent of second- and third-graders at PS 58, Bellenbaum noted that since 2005, the school’s enrollment has more than doubled.

Bellenbaum and other concerned residents heard from and spoke to a panel of elected and appointed decision-makers. The panel included local lawmakers, Department of Education (DOE) planning officials, the School Construction Authority (SCA) external affairs director, PTA parents with rezoning experience, and others.

Amid unprecedented growth and development in District 15 - which contains Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, and Sunset Park schools - those who spoke cited the need to “work together in advance to get ahead of the curve,” as Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon put it. City Council Member Brad Lander and State Senator Daniel Squadron, also co-organizers of the event, expressed a similar point.

As the district looks to the DOE and SCA to add capacity and rezone neighborhoods, anxiety is high. Local officials organized the forum to begin a dialogue earlier than has occurred in other places facing similar issues.

In District 15, the average utilization rate for classrooms is already 111.5 percent. PS 58, its principal explained, has been forced to cap entry into third and fourth grades. “In 2005, enrollment was about 400 students. In 2015, it was 996,” Bellenbaum said.

Recently, overcrowding-caused rezonings of four district schools last year and the 2012 rezoning of two Park Slope schools have caused controversy. Perhaps compounding anxiety about rezonings are the current uproars concerning PS 8 and PS 307 in downtown Brooklyn and PS 191 and PS 199 on the Upper West Side. PTA parents from other public schools that had experienced the rezoning process gave advice to parents from District 15 at last week’s forum.

Kim Glickman, co-president of the PS 8 PTA, offered her advice to District 15 parents on participating in school rezoning processes. “As leaders of your own schools, you need to be able to understand what the triggers causing the school to be overcrowded are and to be able to speak to them clearly,” Glickman said.

Because race and class lines are not as sharply drawn around the three District 15 schools as they are in the other aforementioned school pairings, it is unlikely that a rezoning dispute in the neighborhoods will be the kind of “gentrification battle” seen elsewhere. PS 58, PS 32, and PS 29 were also all deemed either “good standing” or “reward” status by the DOE in its assessment after the 2013-2014 school year.

Still, school district rezonings almost always leave some parents frustrated as their home zones are changed and their children are assigned to different elementary schools than they had planned.

Although overcrowding has not yet reached a crisis level in District 15, it has had a corrosive effect on its schools, speakers at the forum said. And, given the scale of development happening in the district - the Lightstone Group’s 700-unit residential complex is being built in the PS 32 zone, for example - the creation of many more school seats will be necessary to accommodate all of the students it will likely receive. Already, PS 32 has been using trailers in its rear yard for about fifteen years because of overcrowding.

The Lightstone building students (“200-ish” of whom will eventually go to PS 32, according to Council Member Lander) will get seats in the school. A 436-seat annex will be added to the school, Lander and CSA officials recently announced.

“So, it’s good that we’re building 400-plus seats,” Lander told community stakeholders. “But it does speak to the fact that it won’t create enough new capacity to solve our problems collectively.”

The annex is also not slated to be completed for a few more years, at which time the rezoning conversation will be at the forefront as officials determine which students are assigned to the new seats.

As Community Education Council 15 President Naila Rosario explained with a powerpoint, overcrowding is already having negative effects, including the elimination of enrichment programs, worse building maintenance, and the loss of rooms for art, music, and special services.

Though overcrowding appears in many ways as an inevitable result of more people moving into a neighborhood, it is perfectly preventable, according to Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocacy group. Haimson, who was at last week’s forum and frequently speaks to school capacity issues, says policymakers can take concrete steps to keep overcrowding from happening.

“The median utilization rate for elementary schools is over a hundred percent across the city,” Haimson told Gotham Gazette. The problem, she said, is fixable, though there has been a lack of political will. The DOE’s five-year capital plan includes 38,754 new seats for students, a figure that Haimson and her allies believe should be at least doubled.

The PS 32 annex is part of that capital plan, and while it will add seats in District 15, it is clear the district will need even more capacity to serve all of the students in the area.

A 2014 report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer found that one third of elementary schools in New York City registered at least 138 percent of their capacity in 2012. During February of last year, schools chancellor Carmen Fariña created the Blue Book Working Group, which was tasked to review the space utilization formulas of the DOE’s “Blue Book” and recommend reforms to it.

After the group gave its recommendations to the DOE last December, the department did not publish them until July, when it announced that some of them would be adopted. But it rejected the recommendation to shrink class sizes to those outlined by the Contracts for Excellence Law: on average, 19.9 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22.9 for grades 4-8 and 24.5 for grades 9-12. As DNAinfo recently pointed out, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to abide by these sizes during his mayoral campaign.

City school officials were criticized several times at the forum last week in Carroll Gardens.

The DOE has not built schools in Sunset Park, which has District 15 schools, where money was allocated to do so in order to ease overcrowding. “Sunset Park has been slotted to have schools for at least the last ten years,” one audience member said. “It’s not a budget issue.”

One parent, to enthusiastic applause, asked the panel why schools weren't included in new residential developments. When in response, SCA External Affairs Director Michael Mirisola said that his organization is not able to force the creation of schools, an audience member angrily interrupted, “Why not?”

It is up to local elected officials and the de Blasio administration to require public benefits like school seats in development deals. Officials are really only able to do so when developers are utilizing rezonings and other public incentives when they build. The administration and local officials in District 15 are currently negotiating a possible deal with the developer of the former Long Island College Hospital (LICH) site, where a rezoning may be allowed so that a larger development can be built in exchange for public benefits including school seats.

Haimson touched on another overcrowding issue, though not one at play in District 15 per se, decrying the state ensuring in law that any newly approved charter school is guaranteed space. “Here, we have this massive overcrowding problem in New York City where there are communities that have waited 20 years for a school, and yet any charter school can snap its fingers and the city has to give them space or pay for their rent,” Haimson told Gotham Gazette before the forum (she also spoke briefly as an audience member during the Q&A).

The DOE has faced criticism from Brooklyn residents for its handling of the PS 8/PS 307 District 13 rezoning, among others. Early talks with the department could prevent District 15 from having an adversarial relationship with the DOE when its rezoning process begins in earnest. The purpose of last week’s forum was to get dialogue started so that the lines of communication are open and community input is front and center.

“By coming together here with no specific group of so-called winners or so-called losers or people who want one thing and others who have a different goal, it is a really important step,” Sen. Squadron said in his remarks. “But it does not end here, because we have also seen that early engagement alone does not force the Department of Education to do what they're supposed to.”

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this article has been corrected to indicate the schools at the center of rezoning talks on the Upper West Side - they are 191 and 199, not 32 and 29 as initially indicated

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Brooklyn Neighborhoods Look to Address School Overcrowding, Avoid Rezoning Issues Seen Elsewhere Mon, 26 Oct 2015 19:12:03 +0000
The Week That Was in New York Politics, Sept. 28-Oct. 2 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5919:the-week-that-was-in-new-york-politics-sept-28-oct-2 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5919:the-week-that-was-in-new-york-politics-sept-28-oct-2 week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday October 2

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio does some road repaving on Staten Island, via the Mayor's Office; Gov. Cuomo checks out the beer at the Anheuser Busch brewery, via @NYGovCuomo; Public Advocate Tish James welcomes Ahmed Mohamed to City Hall, via @TishJames

de Blasio Staten Island repaving

Cuomo beer check

tish james ahmed

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. NYPD Use of Force: On Thursday, the NYPD announced a set of new guidelines and a tracking system to document officers' use of force. Officers will be required to detail every instance when force is employed, not only during arrests but brief detention-and-release incidents. The NYPD will also track use of force against officers. The announcement comes after City Council members have introduced legislation to require an "early warning system" be put in place to identify officers who use force inappropriately and on the same day as a new NYPD Inspector General report on use-of-force was released.

Read: Next Steps After Eye-Opener NYPD Inspector General Use-of-Force Report by Council Members Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander

2. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion Under Federal Investigation: Federal investigators are looking into how contracts were awarded in Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo economic development program. The Buffalo Billion program is intended to infuse $1 billion into the upstate economy and create 14,000 jobs, but has become the focus of a corruption investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has issued subpoenas to major entities involved.

Read: Alain Kaloyeros, Powerful Centerpiece of Buffalo Billion, Could Become Household Name

3. Chief Judge Takes On Bail: On Thursday, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced a series of initiatives aimed at addressing what he called the “unsafe and unfair bail system,” including automatic review of bail for misdemeanor cases.

4. Debate Over Rezoning of Brooklyn Schools: The Department of Education came under fire on Wednesday at a hearing on the rezoning of two Brooklyn schools. The DOE’s proposal is intended to ease overcrowding one school, but the proposal has sparked debate over race, school equity, school quality, and school desegregation and integration. The de Blasio administration has done little to explicitly address school segregation, but the rezoning at play in Brooklyn is at least somewhat inadvertently moving the issue.

5. Movement on MTA Funding: The de Blasio administration appears to be moving toward meeting more of the funding requests made by the MTA, a state agency, even as the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations continue to spar publicly about responsibility, funding levels, and other aspects of the issue.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • $1.8 billion is how much prosecutors are investigating Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials for diverting from the Hudson River rail tunnel. The funds were spent on state-owned roads instead.
  • 18% decrease in the number of incidents where New York police officers fired their weapons thus far in 2015 compared with the same period last year.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for Staten Island commuters, as the city's ongoing repaving efforts continued, with some help from Mayor de Blasio, under the supervision of Borough President James Oddo; and the official start of expanded Staten Island ferry service, by which the ferry will run every half-hour all the time.
  • It was a bad week for gun control advocates, in New York and elsewhere, whose frustration continues to grow amid news of another mass school shooting, this one in Oregon. Governor Cuomo has had especially harsh words for federal officials who refuse to act on gun regulations such as expanded background checks.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time last year, on September 30, 2014, Mayor de Blasio signed an executive order to expand New York City's living wage law to cover thousands of previously exempt workers and to raise the hourly wage itself for workers who do not receive benefits. The move was criticized by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Report Shows Need for Elementary After-School Expansion, by John Spina

Cuomo Takes Additional Executive Action on Criminal Justice, by David King

Alain Kaloyeros, Powerful Centerpiece of Buffalo Billion, Could Become Household Name, by David King

Absent from Cuomo's New Education Task Force: A Student, by Ben Max

Do New York Elected Officials Deserve A Raise? by Meg O’Connor

Will New York Be Last to 'Raise the Age'? by David King

Amid Federal Brinkmanship, New York City Officials Redouble Support for Planned Parenthood, by Meg O’Connor

***
NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

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The Week That Was in New York Politics, Sept. 28-Oct. 2 Fri, 02 Oct 2015 15:59:23 +0000
Reforming Solitary Confinement At The City's Biggest Psych Ward — Rikers Island http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=4727:reforming-solitary-confinement-at-the-citys-biggest-psych-ward-nrikers-island http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=4727:reforming-solitary-confinement-at-the-citys-biggest-psych-ward-nrikers-island Ismael-Nazario-Solitary-Confinement

NEW YORK — After about three days of being isolated in “the Box” away from his fellow detainees at Rikers Island, Ismael Nazario was beginning to break.

"That's when it started to take it's toll,” he said, conjuring memories of his time in punitive segregation — solitary confinement — in one of the nation’s biggest jail complexes. “I was just like, 'Yo, I cannot be here like this.’”

In his compact cell, furnished with a toilet and cot, Nazario had little space to move, he recalled in a recent interview. "I just talked to myself, answering myself, pacing back and forth.”

Nazario was 16 years old and awaiting trial for robbery the first time he was sent to the Box, he said. According to Nazario, he had been caught with a pouch of tobacco, considered contraband, and was accused of pushing an officer as he tried to dispose of it in the toilet. But the contraband alone would have been enough: both violent and non-violent infractions can land an inmate in punitive segregation. Once there, detainees spend 23 hours per day in their cells.

Now a 25-year-old case manager for at-risk youth at the Center for Community Alternatives in Brooklyn, Nazario said his multiple stays in the Box stayed with him long after he left.

“You have this deep rooted anger and frustration from being in the Box, so the first thing somebody says wrong to you or does wrong, looks at you wrong, you're gonna pop off,” he said. Several studies have found that being confined to a cell for 22 or more hours per day with limited human contact can leave inmates socially and emotionally unstable.

After years of criticism from advocates, the city’s practice of isolating detainees through punitive segregation has come under scrutiny from lawmakers and city officials. In recent months, the City Council passed legislation to bring greater transparency to the practice. But perhaps the greatest change will come in the months ahead.

Motivated by a recent report on solitary confinement at Rikers, the Board of Correction, which oversees the Department of Correction, is seeking to limit the city’s use of the punishment through a slow-moving rulemaking process that could take up to a year. "We're concerned about everybody in solitary confinement, and particularly those with serious mental illness and adolescents," said Dr. Robert Cohen, chair of the Board's committee on punitive segregation.

However, the city’s Department of Correction and the mayor's office have rejected the sweeping critique of solitary confinement contained in the report that informed the Board's decision, as well as the report’s recommendation that isolation only be used as punishment in the most extreme cases.

In an email, the Department defended punitive segregation as just one part of "a comprehensive continuum of care and control" developed to "ensure everyone’s safety." Department of Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro declined to comment further.

The Department has been working towards its own program for reform, however. One major change is already underway: eliminating solitary confinement for people with serious mental illness.

The Push for Reform

In mid-September, members of the Jails Action Coalition rallied outside of a meeting of the Board of Correction at the Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan.

As they awaited a decision from the Board on whether it would attempt to change Rikers' punitive segregation policies, the lawyers, case workers and activists who form the Coalition sang and held a banner that read "Solitary is Torture."

The banner invoked Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights,who called more than 15 days in solitary confinement 'torture' and recommended the punishment not be used at all for adolescents and people diagnosed with mental illness.

In June, following a petition by the Jails Action Coalition, the Board commissioned an independent investigation into punitive segregation at Rikers.

The study found that punitive segregation sentences at Rikers routinely exceed 15 days and that people with mental illness are disproportionately placed in isolation for breaking the rules. When the researchers visited the city jail over the summer, they found a quarter of the adolescent inmates of 16 and 17 years old in solitary confinement.

A separate, recent count by the DOC also revealed that more than one in seven inmates at Rikers is currently being held in isolation — significantly higher than thenational average of about one in 25.

Rethinking the City's Largest Psych Ward

Nearly 40 percent of the population at Rikers Island is mentally ill, according to the Department of Correction, making it, de facto, the city's largest psychiatric facility.

Martin Horn, the city's previous Commissioner of Correction and Probation, said this has posed more than just a disciplinary challenge.

"You're asking the jail to take on a role and a responsibility that it was never intended for, it was never physically constructed for, it was never properly equipped for, the staff was never properly trained for, and the staffing patterns were never properly based upon," said Horn, who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

This past month, the DOC launched the Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation at Rikers, which wasannounced in May as an answer to "widespread concern about the impact that solitary confinement has on the mentally ill."

The program places people who break the rules and have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or another condition the Department considers a "serious mental illness" in a separate, but more communal setting, where therapy is available.

Inmates diagnosed with mental disorders that are not considered "serious" can still be placed in isolated cells for breaking the rules, although they will be offered therapy and incentives for good behavior.

The Department expressed hopes that this approach would help remedy the fact that the average stay of a mentally ill inmate at Rikers is twice as long as that of an inmate who has not been diagnosed with a mental illness.

But advocates for prisoner rights say the DOC needs to focus on improving the quality of its psychiatric treatment in order for it to be effective.

"The way they're trying to provide therapy with a therapist who isn't really engaged reading from a manual, that's just not the way we do it," said attorney Jennifer Parish of the Urban Justice Center. Parish has represented several mentally ill inmates at Rikers and is a founding member of the Jails Action Coalition.

Parish said inmates who receive therapy while in solitary often meet with the mental health clinician inside their cells.

"If you read the [Minimum] Mental Health Standards, there's no way that you can think that adequate mental health treatment could be provided in a punitive environment," Parish said.

Making Solitary Public

There are no public records of the number of people in solitary confinement at Rikers.

In April, City Council members Daniel Dromm and Elizabeth Crowley introducedlegislation to require the Department of Correction to publish monthly statistics on punitive segregation. The mayor’s office has declined to comment on the pending legislation.

"We need to know who they're putting in solitary, why they're going into solitary, and how long they're staying in solitary," said Dromm, who added he took up the cause after noticing the "very, very detrimental effect" solitary confinement had on a friend who served time at Rikers for drug charges.

The punitive segregation capacity at Rikers peaked at 1,035 cells and is now on the decline, according to the DOC.

The Department attributed the hundreds of punitive segregation beds added in the last two years to a "long-standing backlog" of unserved time by inmates who have broken the rules. Dromm has introduced aresolution calling on the Department to end the practice of cashing in on "time owed" in solitary confinement by inmates who return to Rikers after being released.

Is there a way out?

The addition of punitive segregation cells at Rikers has corresponded with a significant increase in violent incidents in the last five years, according to Mayor’s Management Reports between2008 and2013.

"Correction officers bear the brunt of it by being assaulted on a daily basis," Norman Seabrook, president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association,told City Limits in March.

Both Seabrook and former Commissioner Horn have cited cuts to the number of correction officers at Rikers as part of the problem.

There was a decrease in jail violence during Horn’s tenure from 2003 to 2009, which he attributes to a variety of preventive tactics, including the installation of video cameras. "I think it was the result of putting staff resources where they were most needed," Horn said.

Still, Horn said that punitive segregation is necessary to maintain order.

"If two inmates get in a fight, they have to be separated, they have to be protected from each other. In society, when you break a rule, you go to jail. Punitive segregation is the jail within the jail."

Parish suggested that offering inmates more services could also create more alternative punishments for breaking the rules.

"The more incentives that you have that people want to be involved in, the more you can make not having access to that one of the potential punishments," she said.

Parish acknowledged the need to separate inmates who pose a threat to others, but said the disciplinary system should be "focused on rehabilitation, not locking someone in for 23 hours a day."

"As long as we see even one day of that as trivial, as not such a big deal, we're going to have a hard time getting to another place."

Caroline Lewis is a freelance radio and web journalist working towards a Masters at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Read and listen to her stories here.

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Reforming Solitary Confinement At The City's Biggest Psych Ward — Rikers Island Mon, 18 Nov 2013 02:44:00 +0000