Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/719 Fri, 20 Oct 2017 16:22:46 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio Pulled to Rikers Closure by Mark-Viverito, Activists http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6846:de-blasio-pulled-to-rikers-closure-by-mark-viverito-activists http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6846:de-blasio-pulled-to-rikers-closure-by-mark-viverito-activists de Blasio Rikers

De Blasio at Rikers (photo: Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday that he is putting into motion a planning process to close the jails on Rikers Island. The mayor, a first-term Democrat up for re-election this fall, was pulled somewhat begrudgingly to the politically- and fiscally-tenuous position by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who called for Rikers to be closed in her 2016 State of the City speech and formed a commission to create a plan to do so. That commission, led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, is set to release its recommendations at a news conference on Sunday.

"New York City will close the Rikers Island jail complex," de Blasio said Friday at the outset of a press conference at City Hall, which he held with Mark-Viverito and his criminal justice coordinator, Liz Glazer, and Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte.

After news reports about the Lippman Commission plan and support for it surfaced Thursday evening in The New York Post and Politico New York, the mayor decided to hold the Friday press conference. De Blasio and Mark-Viverito both said they had not yet seen the Lippman report, though a reporter from The New York Times was shown a copy, indicating that the mayor and speaker will explore the broad contours of a 10-year, $10-plus billion plan. As de Blasio said Friday, the city will consider the Lippman Commission plan, but then formulate its own, which will involve continuing efforts to reduce the city’s jails population, which has been decreasing over decades and is currently about 9,300 (three-quarters, or 7,500, of whom are on Rikers) and expanding and creating local jails. The latter is likely to cause a good deal of political turmoil in the city.

The mayor and speaker have not decided how many facilities they will seek to open, or what they will do with the city's jails that are not on Rikers, which are home to about 2,400 beds. The mayor said that for the plan to come to fruition over ten years, the total city jail population will need to be around 5,000 and at least two local communities will have to be open to new facilities.

De Blasio, who originally called closing down Rikers jails a “noble idea” but virtually implausible, was privately frustrated by the speaker forcing the issue onto his agenda last year. He came around as the plan was being finalized by the commission, and also after a loud, persistent, and well-organized “Close Rikers” coalition had been protesting outside his re-election fundraisers, publishing op-eds, and accruing support.

On Friday, de Blasio indicated that not only had he needed time to see more of where crime and the jail population in the city were heading during his ongoing tenure, but that Mark-Viverito had been especially persistent. "The Speaker did something extraordinarily important here by looking constantly for a new solution and pushing hard for a path that would get us to this day. And I will be clear, there were many times I could not see that path – and many attempts we made to find a path off of Rikers Island that we did not find effective – but the Speaker kept not only pushing, but offering more and more ideas and more alternatives to help us get there. Her work has been crucial in bringing us to this day."

"[T]he Speaker raised this issue with me – and I have to say – dozens of times over the last few years," de Blasio said during a question-and-answer session with reporters. "We had to do a lot of work to figure out a path that actually could achieve this goal. And my feeling in the beginning was – if I didn’t believe it could be done, I wasn’t going to say it could be done."

The mayor’s decision to back a Rikers closure plan also comes after many years of terrible conditions at the jails on the island, recently cemented in the public discourse throughout 2014, including from the tragic story of Kalief Browder, who was tormented during his jail stay and later killed himself, while no charges were ever brought against him.

There were also in-depth investigative reports of horrific conditions on the island, particularly by The New York Times, including details of violence in all directions involving guards and inmates, and a lawsuit brought against the city by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York over civil rights violations. De Blasio has indicated that before becoming mayor he did not have a full grasp on how bad things were on Rikers and he has moved a number of reforms on the island, which he has also was long-ignored by his predecessors.

There have been calls to shut down the Rikers facilities for years, including by Neil Barsky, who, in a 2015 New York Times op-ed, argued that “the only way to transform Rikers is to destroy it; it needs to be permanently closed. The buildings are crumbling. The guard culture of prisoner abuse and the gang culture of violence are ingrained. The complex is New York’s Guantánamo Bay: a secluded island, beyond the gaze of watchdogs, where the Constitution is no guide. It is a place that has outlived its usefulness.”

Over time, elected officials like Comptroller Scott Stringer, in late 2015, and City Council Member Dan Garodnick, last week, joined calls for Rikers closure; even Governor Andrew Cuomo began to voice the opinion in recent weeks. The "Close Rikers" campaign, which has many coalition members, has been gaining steam in part based on the strategy and force of the activists involved, led by JustLeadershipUSA's Glenn Martin, who was incarcerated at Rikers and has become a leading national voice on criminal justice reform. He has led protests outside de Blasio fundraising events, which have gotten the mayor's attention.

mmv bdb rikersFor weeks de Blasio has been saying that he would have more to announce about the future of the city’s jails around the time of his executive budget plan, which is due in May. But, the timeline was sped up.

In her 2016 State of the City speech, Mark-Viverito said, “Our current Rikers-centric system has been plagued by a culture of violence requiring federal oversight. It is also wildly inefficient.” In announcing the Lippman commission, she concluded, “We must explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”

De Blasio’s initial public reaction was tepid. On WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show just after Mark-Viverito’s speech, de Blasio called Rikers closure is “a noble idea” and said, “we’re going to work with Judge Lippman...to see what’s possible.” While stressing that no matter what the city must continue improving conditions at Rikers in the short-term, de Blasio said of closure, “any proposal like that would take many years to be achieved.” He promised to “look at every alternative going forward. I have to remind people, it could well cost many billions of dollars and we have to prove that we have the money but we’ll certainly work with the Speaker and Judge Lippman.”

Earlier this week, de Blasio announced a new set of education and job-training programs to help those detained at the city’s jails, including a guaranteed temporary job for everyone who has completed a sentence at a city jail. Most of the population at Rikers are pretrial detainees, often those who cannot afford bail, which was the case for Browder. De Blasio and others have been working on bail reform, as well as other efforts to reduce the jail population, which includes a City Council-led effort to move enforcement of many low-level, nonviolent offenses from criminal to civil proceedings.

When making his reentry program announcement on Wednesday, de Blasio highlighted that the city’s jail population is down 18% since he took office, bolstered by a 23% drop on Rikers Island. Still, the complex has been plagued by violence and is notoriously dangerous, expensive, and antiquated.

De Blasio repeatedly stressed on Friday that it will be a long-term plan that could be adjusted. He said a lot will ride on the City Council and the land use process in which individual Council members hold a lot of sway over whether a new facility comes to their district. Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited out of office at the end of this year, promised to fight for the plan into the future. A lot will ride on her successor as Council Speaker, as well as individual members being willing to explore siting a jail facility in their neighborhoods.

“Shuttering Rikers would be an audacious move for Mr. de Blasio,” Barsky wrote in 2015, “who would have to find alternatives for the island’s roughly 10,000 overwhelmingly male, African-American and Latino inmates. This may not be as hard as it might seem, though it would probably involve some new or expanded detention facilities in the boroughs, risking not-in-my-backyard blowback.”

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated in several places to include information from Friday's press conference and clarify several points.

]]>
De Blasio Pulled to Rikers Closure by Mark-Viverito, Activists Fri, 31 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Much Agreement on Need for Bail Reform, But Little Movement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6658:much-agreement-on-need-for-bail-reform-but-little-movement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6658:much-agreement-on-need-for-bail-reform-but-little-movement de Blasio rikers ponte officers

On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


There is an ongoing conversation in New York about how to fix the bail system that many agree is broken, keeping too many poor people in jail after they are arrested for low-level nonviolent offenses but cannot afford to post bond and, at times, allowing individuals back onto the street who are prone to violence but able to pay bail. Efforts at reform have been full of fits and starts.

About a month ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced measures to make it easier for people to pay bail through an online payment system, as opposed to the insistence that bail is paid in person. More recently, City Council Member Rory Lancman introduced legislation that would require a city service provider to furnish judges setting bail with details of a defendant’s financial situation.

These latest incremental local reform ideas and others are aimed at chipping away at the problems with the system, but many advocates, legal experts, and elected officials agree that there is a need for an expanded statewide conversation around the culture of bail and actual statutory reform, chiefly to ensure that those with limited material resources are not punished simply for their economic status.

Reforming the bail system in New York has been something of a priority at both the city and state levels, though tangible progress has been limited.

In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo included the issue in his policy agenda for this year, although there has been little follow-up through legislation. Cuomo proposed requiring judges to assess risk to public safety when making a bail decision -- something de Blasio and others are in agreement with -- and stronger regulations of bail bondsman practices.

In New York City, the de Blasio administration has implemented a number of initiatives this year to make bail payments less complicated and to provide alternatives to bail that keep people from being incarcerated. There have also been concerted efforts both in policing practice and through legislation to reduce arrests for low-level offenses in the first place, and arrests are down significantly while the city has become safer in terms of major crimes.

The population at Rikers Island jails, where about three-quarters of the city’s jail population is housed, hovers around 7,500 daily, down significantly from peak years over recent decades.

In April, the mayor committed nearly $18 million for a citywide expansion of a supervised release program that will allow as many as 3,000 low-level offenders each year to remain out of jail and work while they await trial. The program cuts down on the use of monetary bail, ensuring that people who are of low risk to public safety but cannot afford bail do not languish in prison.

Last month, the mayor announced the creation of a system that allows cash bail to be paid online, by a phone, or through a courthouse kiosk by family members and friends of defendants. The system, due to be launched citywide by the spring, aims at alleviating the difficulty of having to physically visit a corrections facility to pay bail. “Nobody with the ability to pay bail should sit in jail just because the bail process is an inconvenience,” de Blasio said at the announcement.

The City Council has also been inching closer to establishing a public bail fund, which was first announced by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in her February 2015 State of the City speech. The fund received a license from the state Department of Financial Services in August but cannot begin operations until a pending license application for a bail bond agent is approved. If it becomes operational, the fund will provide bail money for qualifying participants so that they can leave jail between arrest and court appearance.

Bail reform is a key consideration for the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a body that was set up at the speaker’s behest earlier this year to recommend broad criminal justice reforms, with an eye toward creating a plan for closing the Rikers Island prison complex. The body is being headed by former New York State chief judge Jonathan Lippman, who, when he filled that role, argued vehemently for bail reform.

Lippman believes that bail reform is moving ahead slowly in the city, but he stressed in a phone interview that there needs to be statutory change in law to effect broad change. “The city is doing really good things but they’re nibbling around the edges, not able to get at the heart of it,” he said. “My belief is that we need cooperation from Albany and we need a new bail statute.”

Lippman suggested a two-fold approach to bail: giving judges the authority to assess risk to public safety and the need to “flip the assumption” that someone should be incarcerated instead of being released while waiting for a court date. “Bail doesn’t assure the person coming back and it’s an anachronism,” he said, promising that the commission will directly address the issue when it releases its recommendations sometime in spring 2017.

Last year, when Lippman was serving as chief judge (he was forced to retire due to age restrictions and is now “of counsel” at Latham & Watkins), he announced administrative measures to reform the bail system in the absence of legislative action by the state. His own proposals from 2013 to essentially do away with cash bail have not been taken up by legislators in Albany, where Republicans control the state Senate and are often opposed to what is seen as progressive criminal justice reform.

“I think we got a lot of attention when I proposed the legislation,” Lippman said, rueing that “getting a lot of attention and getting things done are two different things.”

The challenge to changing the bail statute, he said, is the same that creeps up in any issue of criminal justice reform. “Legislators are elected and get into this soft-on-crime/tough-on-crime syndrome,” he said. “I think we need to be smart on crime.”

A major impetus to the conversation around bail reform was the tragic death of Kalief Browder, a young Bronx resident who spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial on charges of stealing a backpack. Browder couldn’t pay bail but was eventually released when the case was dismissed. In jail, he faced physical and mental abuse and was placed in solitary confinement for nearly two years. In June 2015, Browder committed suicide.

The case prompted widespread outrage and besides putting a spotlight on the culture of violence at Rikers, it highlighted the problems in the bail system. Advocates use Browder’s experience as a rallying cry in their push for change.

While there’s a lot of agreement that an update of the legal statutes is necessary, there’s a greater need, many say, for reexamining the purpose of the bail mechanism and reeducation in how it is practiced.

“Bail, by definition, discriminates against the poor,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy Democratic Conference leader, who proposed a bill last year to scrap cash bail. “There’s no rational basis for continuing this process.”

Gianaris, of Queens, believes that reform is being slowed by a misunderstanding of the issue. “Bail was never intended to keep dangerous people off the street,” he said, pointing out that defendants have a constitutional presumption of innocence and cannot be considered dangerous for the purposes of bail if they haven’t been convicted yet.”

Ezra Ritchin, project director of the Bronx Freedom Fund, one of two charitable bail funds already operating in New York City, commends the mayor and the City Council for the steps they’ve taken and says there is an urgency around bail reform at the state level.

“We’re in an important moment right now where there’s a lot of change happening,” he said. “Since Kalief Browder...there has been momentum for reform.”

But Ritchin warned, “There are things that we are missing in all of this.” The root of the issue, he said, is the high volume of arrests in New York City, and the consideration that a defendant is likely to miss their court date. “It’s often labeled as flight-risk,” he said. “That’s a massive misunderstanding of what’s going on. No one is fleeing.”

“It’s a question of the way that we frame risk,” Ritchin said, referring to the chances that a person might flee or even be a risk to public safety, which is a consideration that both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have proposed as an addition to the bail statute. “What we don’t talk about,” Ritchin said, “is the risk of a person’s life falling apart from being wrenched into the system.”

Therein lies the biggest issue for Ritchin, the way the bail statute is put into practice. The current statute allows nine different forms of bail, including cash bail, that a judge can impose, some of which are less onerous.

“I think the statute, if used correctly, could result in a very different system than the one we see now,” Ritchin said. This “golden question” of how to change the culture of imposing bail, among prosecutors and judges, is one for which Ritchin said he has no clear answer.

City Council Member Lancman echoed that sentiment. As the chair of the Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services, Lancman is at the frontline of this issue. “The major obstacle is the unwillingness of judges and prosecutors to accept other forms of assurances for a defendant...than cash bail or bond, as well as the unwillingness to look at each defendant’s financial circumstances,” Lancman told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. “The system in every way possible -- from the city side, the judiciary side, the district attorney’s side, and, to a lesser extent, from the defense’s side -- is not focused on eliminating this reality of people being sent to Rikers Island because they’re poor.”

Under the bill Lancman introduced November 29, an arraignment screening organization contracted by the city to provide details about a defendant, including a recommendation on their risk of flight, would also have to include information on a defendant’s ability to pay bail. This is just one of the few ways the city can change how the bail system works, Lancman said, stressing the need for action at multiple levels. “The effort to reform bail requires many stakeholders adopting the new procedures and policies and outlook, which cumulatively would have an effect of greatly reducing the number of people on Rikers Island because they’re poor,” he said. 

The understanding that cash bail is a misguided concept has taken hold in an unprecedented way at the city and state level, according to Insha Rahman, senior planner at the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. Less than a decade ago, “it wasn’t a part of the rhetoric and conversation around bail as it is now,” Rahman said. 

She insisted that any legislative proposal, such as one that would consider adding public safety as a consideration, should be informed by data obtained through a statewide survey. “The push needs to be to understand the problems with the use of bail statewide to avoid unintended consequences in places where it’s being used effectively as opposed to ineffectively,” she added, pointing out that different counties employ different practices and that the system is far from a monolith even within New York City’s five boroughs.

There is no cash bail in Washington D.C., where defendants are only detained if they are considered a risk to public safety. It’s considered a model by many advocates of bail reform in New York. But, as Rahman argued, adding risk as a consideration in setting bail could create problems if not studied carefully. “Any change to that is basically change in the sorting mechanism of who stays in and who is released,” she said.

Judge Lippman supports the idea of factoring public risk. So do Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, and they have been criticized for it. The proposal has also held up reform at the state level as different stakeholders struggle to find middle ground. Advocates and legal experts fear that it could deprive defendants of their rights and further institutionalize racism in the judicial system.

Cuomo has not changed his stance since he first included it in his 2016 agenda, according to his office. “The Governor continues to champion comprehensive criminal justice reform, including changes to the state’s antiquated bail system,” said Abbey Fashouer, a spokesperson for the governor, in a statement. “New York is one of only four states in the nation that does not currently take into account public safety risks when making bail and release decisions – and it’s past time to develop a new approach.”

The mayor recently doubled down on his support for the proposal. During a November 7 appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall, de Blasio spoke of the need for bail reform in the context of the fatal shooting of NYPD Sergeant Paul Tuozzolo in the Bronx just three days prior. Tuozzolo was shot and killed by a man who was out on bail and suffered from mental health problems. It was reminiscent of the October 2015 killing of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder, which the mayor referenced in the interview as well. Holder was killed in East Harlem while pursuing an armed suspect who had earlier been sentenced to a treatment program by a drug court rather than being sent to jail.

“This is a reminder that we need bail reform in the State of New York,” de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis of Tuozzolo’s murder. “We need to include the question of how dangerous a criminal is in the bail decision because there are times when someone is not – a criminal is not a flight risk, but they are a threat to the community, or they have a profound mental health challenge that needs to be addressed. These issues have to be taken into account and we need a state law that recognizes that bail – judges should have the opportunity to consider the dangerousness of the individual when making a bail decision.”

Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, said, as others did, that, “The fundamental problem with how bail operates is that it cages presumptively innocent people for their inability to come up with a certain amount of money.” He warns that replacing it with a system that assesses public safety might ignore that presumption as well.

“There’s a risk that  a system that replaces it will exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities,” Goldberg said. “And in any system that looks to judge a person’s dangerousness merely based on the accusation of a crime, the data being used to create that system needs to be made available to the public, to be vigorously validated, but the bedrock principle needs to be the presumption of release.”

As 2017 approaches and with it the next budget and legislative agendas for state legislators and the governor, there’s widespread optimism that bail reform will be a priority. Judge Lippman believes the issue has gestated long enough. “That digestive process has already taken place and it’s time to pick it up and run with it,” he said, confident that his commission’s recommendations will be bold and “out of the box” and will not be politically constrained. “Because of the credibility of the commission, because of the depth of the research...no public official is going to be able to fuzz around these issues,” he said. “That releases some of the political pressure.”

Senator Gianaris is bullish on bail reform as well. “We’ve seen enough injustice,” he said, “that the time has come to take a comprehensive look at this and get rid of bail once and for all.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Much Agreement on Need for Bail Reform, But Little Movement Thu, 08 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Shut Down the Criminal Court http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6190:shut-down-the-criminal-court http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6190:shut-down-the-criminal-court courtroom


City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito should be commended for using her State of the City address, titled "More Justice," to call for criminal justice reform. She rightly observes that "we need more justice in the justice system" and ticked off some specific goals, including reducing the population at Rikers Island, creating civil procedures for minor violations, and improving the warrant process. However, the speaker must aim higher if she truly wants "more justice." More specifically, just as she referred to the "dream" of shutting down Rikers Island, so too should she call for abolishing the present Criminal Court.

While the tactics of the NYPD have been subject to vigorous debate, and the horrific conditions at Rikers Island have been increasingly exposed, the Criminal Court, the entity that reviews arrests and metes out sentences, has been free from any serious scrutiny.

Last year, about 350,000 people were arraigned in the city's Criminal Courts. More than 90% of the defendants were black or Latino. Only 14% of the cases were felonies and owing to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton's devotion to "broken windows" policing, misdemeanors and violations accounted for a whopping 81%. Almost 60% of those cases ended at arraignment, the accused's first appearance before a judge - a moment in time when the prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge don't know much of anything about the charges, the accused, the arresting officer, or any actual victim. This is not anyone's conception of a "court."

The speaker's call for "more" justice assumes there is already some amount present. It is hard to imagine the word "justice" occurring to anyone observing the court in action. Instead, it is as it has always been – an assembly line concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with rushing through cases. It is no secret that court administrators regularly evaluate judges on the speed with which they move their calendars and the number of guilty pleas they obtain in the process.

Most people assume that the Criminal Court adjudicates guilt or innocence with witnesses testifying under oath, an attentive jury, and a judge at the helm. In fact, there are virtually no jury trials in the Criminal Court as defendants are pressured in myriad ways to plead guilty or resolve their cases in any way other than a trial.

Consider this – the average time citywide from arraignment until the start of jury trial is 570 days. In the Bronx it is 826 days. Who can languish in jail or repeatedly come back to court for that long a period of time without experiencing emotional strain, missed work, missed school, etc.?

More deliberately pernicious is the time-honored "trial tax" – defendants are aware that they will get severely sentenced if convicted for having the temerity to exercise their constitutional right to a trial by jury. The result? In 2014, there were only 175 jury trials in the entire New York City Criminal Court (about 1/20 of 1% of the cases that entered the court the same year). On the other hand, there were about 175,000 guilty pleas.

Most people assume that the Criminal Court adjudicates the constitutionality of the arrest, as even non-lawyers are familiar with the prohibition against illegal search and seizure. However, pretrial suppression hearings, where officers testify under oath and judges determine whether they acted legally, are as rare as jury trials. It took a trial in federal court for a judge to find that the NYPD was engaging in hundreds of thousands of violations of the Fourth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. If the Criminal Court focused on its role as protector of constitutional rights and less on its self-imposed mandate to speed through cases, the stop-and-frisk debacle might have been stopped in its tracks years earlier.

What, then, does the Criminal Court actually do? Twenty-five years ago, a colleague examined Criminal Court data and argued that the court didn't do anything of substance. He found that the court failed to assure that persons accused of crime are accorded their rights under law, failed to seriously assess guilt or innocence, failed to mete out any kind of meaningful sentence to those ultimately convicted, and cost the taxpayer a huge sum of money. He pointed to the lack of adversarial litigation and concluded that the Court's essential function was taking guilty pleas to minor charges. As a result, he suggested it should be abolished.

I disagreed then, and still do now, with his finding that the Criminal Court didn't do much of anything significant. The Criminal Court does many things. Daily, it processes a multitude of young men of color, saddles them with arrest or criminal records, and renders them less employable, less likely to get into college, less able to get loans, less able to get licenses, etc. That reality breeds frustration, pain, anger, and alienation.

The Criminal Court brings in revenue. Ferguson, Missouri is not the only city that grows its coffers through its criminal justice system. In 2014, fines, surcharges, bail and related fees netted $31,884,569 - that's just under $32 million.

Ultimately, the Criminal Court is a highly efficient instrument of social control that maintains the status quo (or, as our Mayor might say, it perpetuates a tale of two cities).

Yet, while I reject my colleague's conclusion, I agree wholeheartedly with his ultimate recommendation -- the Criminal Court should be abolished. This goal is not so far-fetched. Consider that while advocates for prison abolition were initially seen as wild-eyed dreamers, we now hear that Speaker Mark-Viverito's "dream" of shutting down Rikers Island even has the support of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Mayor Bill de Blasio conceded that the Criminal Court needed to be re-examined several months ago when he announced his "Justice Reboot" initiative. However, meaningful change requires more than shutting down and restarting or tinkering with the same basic program. The usual slate of reforms offered to improve the Criminal Court – generally centered around the supposed need for swifter dispositions – will accomplish little. A reduced backlog won't change the color of the defendants nor the continued meting out of unnecessary and undeserved criminal records.

Speaker Mark-Viverito recognizes the dysfunction that characterizes the Criminal Court. She is creating a commission, headed by New York's former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, charged with re-imagining "our entire criminal justice system."

To his credit, Judge Lippman has already promised to "pull no punches." That is exactly the right approach. The Criminal Court hasn't been fundamentally changed since its inception in 1962 and has repeatedly been referred to as a system in crisis. It is well past time for a new approach that focuses on assessing the nature and quality of justice delivered instead of the quantity and alacrity of cases disposed. Isn't that the true measure of a "court?"

***
Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law.

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

]]>
Shut Down the Criminal Court Wed, 24 Feb 2016 21:23:54 +0000
To Eradicate Sex Trafficking, Prosecute the Pimps and Buyers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6133:to-eradicate-sex-trafficking-prosecute-the-pimps-and-buyers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6133:to-eradicate-sex-trafficking-prosecute-the-pimps-and-buyers hersh

Lauren Hersh, the author (at podium), and other activists 


Sarah was 13 years old when she was lured into prostitution by two men from her New York City neighborhood. For the next two years, she was sold to buyers who were eager to purchase her adolescent body. Her pimp required her to meet a quota and when she didn't, she was brutalized.

There were many moments when Sarah tried to leave the life of prostitution. Each time, her exploiter would threaten to harm her or worse, her little sister. Sarah felt helpless and trapped. So, she stayed.

Sarah was bought by men who wore business suits and went home to their wives and children. The money they paid would pass through Sarah's hands and land in her pimp's pocket. While her pimp and the buyers operated with impunity, Sarah was harassed and arrested by police more times than she could count.

For years, New York court dockets were filled with women and girls who were pulled off the street, brought before judges, sent to jail, and then returned back into the hands of their exploiters. This vicious cycle was fueled by laws that failed to adequately protect victims and a public perception that people in prostitution were there of their own free will and should be punished in an effort to "clean up the streets."

In 2013, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman created Human Trafficking Intervention Courts after recognizing that the vast majority of women arrested for prostitution were, in fact, victims of trafficking or other forms of exploitation. These courts sought to provide people in prostitution with exit strategies and comprehensive services, instead of jail time and criminal records.

Simultaneously, a widespread movement to change the New York State Human Trafficking Laws was gaining momentum. Survivors and advocates were frustrated that in New York, sex trafficking was still a non-violent felony and people who purchased children for sex were receiving lower penalties than those who committed a purse snatch.

District Attorneys needed better tools to prosecute exploiters. Victims needed better protections. Change was necessary to reflect the growing understanding that in order to eliminate trafficking, it was necessary to hold traffickers and buyers accountable, not people in prostitution.

Albany responded to pleas for progress. In October 2015, Governor Cuomo signed the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act into law, a comprehensive bill that increases accountability for those who exploit, while providing protections for some of society's most marginalized. Last week, survivors around the state cheered as this law went into effect.

The Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act can absolutely be a game changer. But, like any law, it makes no difference if it is not enforced. And this is a significant task.

Sarah's experience with our criminal justice system signals a need for change.

Specifically, we need widespread police training not only about the new law, but the complexity of exploitation and best practices for prevention. Police departments must continue to shift perspectives on prostitution.

Government resources must be used to prosecute traffickers and to eliminate the demand for prostitution by going after buyers. It's a simple case of supply and demand: without buyers, there's no profit for the sellers. Successful trafficking prevention must include sex-buyer accountability.

Law enforcement cannot eliminate trafficking alone. Resources must be allocated to heighten community awareness and provide in-depth training for those on the front lines. School teachers, medical professionals, and those working with children in foster care, LGBT youth and other vulnerable populations often meet young victims, but without adequate trafficking training, they may miss critical signs of exploitation.

Today, Sarah* is a lawyer and one of the fiercest anti-trafficking advocates you will ever meet. But she can't do it alone. The notion that prostitution is a victimless crime must be banished from our vernacular. People in prostitution must be seen for what they are: victims of modern-day slavery and sexual violence.

It's incumbent on all of us – including our elected officials at the federal, state and local levels, the judiciary, law enforcement, and everyday citizens – to do what we can to prevent even one young girl from living the hell that Sarah endured.

*Note: Sarah (a pseudonym), is now in her late twenties and still receives threats against her life from her former pimp. Her safety requires full anonymity.

***
Lauren Hersh is Director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at the NYC-based Sanctuary for Families, a leading service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence.

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

]]>
To Eradicate Sex Trafficking, Prosecute the Pimps and Buyers Mon, 01 Feb 2016 22:17:30 +0000
'Dangerousness' Aspect of Cuomo's Bail Plan Troubles Reformers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6106:dangerousness-aspect-of-cuomos-bail-plan-troubles-reformers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6106:dangerousness-aspect-of-cuomos-bail-plan-troubles-reformers cuomo sots solo

Gov. Cuomo delivers his State of the State


In his recently-released policy agenda for 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo included a plan to reform the state's bail system. While it has not been fully fleshed out yet, Cuomo's proposal dictates that judges would use a scientific assessment tool to determine an individual's "risk to public safety" while setting bail, a proposal similar to one Mayor Bill de Blasio recently made, with both coming under fire from criminal justice reformers.

De Blasio made his call on the state to reform bail laws in the wake of the shooting of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder by an alleged assailant with a long rap sheet of drug-related arrests. The mayor and others attacked the judge who put the alleged shooter into a diversion program instead of setting a high bail and effectively holding him in jail.

The plan was criticized by public defenders and criminal justice reform groups as a step in the wrong direction. Groups like Legal Aid Society are concerned adding 'dangerousness' to a judge's evaluation of an individual could lead to preemptive detention and institutionalized racism, see people charged with nonviolent crimes hit with disproportionate bail because they are deemed to be a threat, and lead to even more jail overcrowding as judges feel the need to remand an increasing number of defendants out of the fear of political blow back.

The same groups are now surprised and concerned to see Cuomo is running with the idea.

"I think this could make things terribly worse," said Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association. "I think the mayor made a mistake when he called for this. I understand it was after a shooting of a police officer but it's wrongheaded and the governor is wrongheaded in now proposing the same thing the mayor did. We'd be giving a legal protection to the racism that already exists in the system."

Advocates for criminal justice reform and a number of Democratic legislators were surprised when presented with Cuomo's bail reform plan given that most of the criminal justice priorities contained in his address and other recent action lined up with major progressive reform agenda items. These include Cuomo's push to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 and to expand alternatives to incarceration programs.

Cuomo's budget book lists the bail plan under the "Fairness For All" section, along with increasing "opportunities for families to stay close during incarceration" and "reward[ing] success after release," among other planks.

The governor appears to be making the same argument that de Blasio made, which is that there needs to be more leniency for non-violent offenders, but harsher discipline for those who commit the gravest crimes - or who may commit them.

The Cuomo administration intends to utilize a risk-assessment program like the one developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, an organization that looks to use a fact-based approach to combating societal problems. The program aims to gauge an individual's risk of reoffense by evaluating factors including age, criminal record, and previous failures to appear in court. The foundation has touted the predictive tool as a way to remove biases from the process of setting bail. Criminal justice reformers and public defenders worry it will have the opposite impact.

Members of the Cuomo administration stressed that they have yet to settle on a plan, or develop a program bill with the parameters for the program and that any judgement by outside groups is simply uninformed.

"Bail reform, when combined with an assessment tool, has the opposite effect of what they are suggesting," Alphonso David, counsel to Governor Cuomo told Gotham Gazette of critics. "What we've seen when it has been implemented in areas of Kentucky and in the city of Chicago is a decrease in crime, a decrease in reoffending, and a decrease in jail population."

Nevertheless, advocates are concerned that an impersonal evaluation tool will make it easier for judges to rationalize denying bail.

"Over the last couple of years we've been heartened to see an incredible amount of attention paid to the problems with our bail system -- people languishing in jail for years who have not been convicted of anything, who simply can't pay the price for their freedom and how our bail system disproportionately impacts people of color," said Justine Olderman of The Bronx Defenders.

"Policy makers have vowed to fix these problems," Olderman said. "Yet at the same time, they call for including dangerousness in the bail statute which will expand the reasons that a person who is presumed innocent can be held in jail. They seem to do so without any recognition that including dangerousness will undermine their bail reform efforts and will only exacerbate our current bail crisis."

Lately, the conversation about bail has focused on preventing the poor from disproportionately having to serve jail time when they can't afford to pay even small amounts of bail for minor crimes. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito first announced plans to back a bail fund, then de Blasio followed suit with a public bail fund, followed by Democratic state Senator Michael Gianaris introducing legislation that would eliminate cash bail for certain individuals.

Gianaris said that he hopes there will be room for discussion of his plan given that the governor put the concept of bail reform in his 2016 agenda. "The debate is long overdue," said Gianaris. "The bail system has no rational basis. It just imprisons poor people who have not been convicted, the rich simply pay bail."

Gianaris acknowledged that the concept of basing bail on dangerousness has split progressives in the past. "This has been an ongoing debate with progressives falling on different sides of it. My bill doesn't change what a judge considers. It just does away with the financial component of bail."

Advocates say Cuomo's proposal simply doesn't jive with the rest of his progressive criminal justice agenda.

"I was surprised to see this in the same agenda with 'raise the age' and other criminal justice reforms," said Justine Luongo, who is the attorney in charge of Legal Aid Society's legal practice. "I understand why you would go this route: you want to prevent terrible tragedies, but this leads us down the wrong path."

Cuomo's 2016 policy book states that New York is one of four states that do not require judges to consider public safety when setting bail and that the current "approach means that people in New York who do not present a risk to public safety are detained while people who may present a risk to public safety are able to post bail and gain release."

The policy book goes on to say: "Governor Cuomo will introduce legislation to require judges to consider public safety when making release and bail decisions. The legislation will also permit judges to use research-based, accepted risk assessments when considering a defendant's threat to public safety. Other states and cities are using these risk assessments with good results: more people are released from jail before trial, without any attendant rise in crime."

The New York Times reported in June that a North Carolina precinct that has implemented the Arnold Foundation's assessment tool has seen its jail population drop by 20 percent.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who said he was very pleased by the majority of Cuomo's criminal justice agenda, was taken aback by the bail proposal. "As far as the bail proposal and my current understanding of it, I am deeply concerned that it might be going toward preventive detention," Rivera, who has backed a bail fund in the Bronx, told Gotham Gazette. "The state moved away from that, it rejected that in the past."

The state legislature has periodically debated having judges consider dangerousness since the 1970s, but in the end has decided against it.

"I think conceptually most people support judges being able to consider public safety when setting bail," said David, Cuomo's counsel.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has advocated for this particular change to the state's criminal justice law. "My Office has long supported a change to the state's antiquated law that only permits us to take an individual's risk of flight into account when setting bail," Vance said in a statement in July that was issued as part of an announcement touting a $17.8 million commitment from de Blasio to supervise 3,000 defendants as part of a community release program designed to avoid bail or jail time before trial.

"Today, I'm calling on Albany to amend that law to enable prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys to also evaluate dangerousness and risk of re-offending when making bail determinations, as is the practice in nearly every other state in this country," Vance's July statement continued. "The use of an updated science-driven risk assessment tool will help actors in the criminal justice system better understand who can safely be released and supervised in the community while awaiting their day in court."

Reform advocates and a number of public defenders said they've seen no proof that states that consider dangerousness are actually preventing crime. They insist that only a small portion of those released on bail actually go on to be rearrested while awaiting trial.

"I have not come across any empirical data that New York has greater rearrest rates than any community with a dangerous statute," said Olderman.

Advocates fear the assessment tool will be used to jail a larger swath of people who haven't been found guilty of any crime, that judges will tend toward remanding defendants rather than posting bail for fear that there could be political backlash should someone out on bail is accused of another crime.

"We are very concerned there will be findings of dangerousness by this assessment tool in cases where there is no nexus with violence," said Luongo. She said that a youth with a history of non-violent misdemeanors could be deemed dangerous because of assessment criteria.

"In the current system a number of factors are already taken into account when setting bail, in domestic violence cases for example. We have registries for gun offenders and domestic violence, a judge can already take dangerousness into account," said Luongo. "Our concern is here that we are talking about predictive, preventative detention. It is troubling that the governor is not talking about striking a balance, doing away with bail in misdemeanor cases as former Chief Judge Lippman has suggested."

Jonathan Lippman, who was forced into retirement recently due to age restrictions on his position, has long pushed the legislature to overhaul the state's bail system as he has argued it disproportionately impacts the poor, forcing those unable to pay even the smallest bail to serve long jail terms before trial and thereby destroying any chance they have at a normal life. However, Lippman has advocated the state to move on the bail reform de Blasio and Cuomo are pushing for. In August, Lippman defended de Blasio's stance in an interview with Politico New York in October.

"I think they're fearful of this idea of preventive detention, but at some point you have to have confidence in judges and their judgement — that's what judges are there for — and you have to have a balanced bail statute that makes some sense and keeps violent people in, and there's a presumption that people who are not violent, and won't hurt anybody, are at their job and with their families and out on the street," Lippman said of Legal Aid Society criticism, according to Politico New York.

Legal Aid Society is also concerned that once a judge labels someone "dangerous" it could become very difficult to lose the label even in the face of facts. Luongo said that facts in cases can quickly change as seen in the recent highly-publicized Brownsville group rape case. "If one judge finds a defendant "dangerous," who is going to be willing to reverse that? Are judges going to be willing to step on another judge's toes?"

Robyn Pangi of The District Attorneys Association of New York told Gotham Gazette that her organization had not yet seen any specifics of Cuomo's plan. "District Attorneys would like to be involved in conversations regarding changes to the current bail system, particularly a proposal that takes into account the dangerousness of a defendant when setting bail," Pangi said in a statement. "DAs are interested in different mechanisms of pretrial detention, but stress that any sound proposal must take into account public safety and allow for prosecutorial appeal of the judge's decision in cases where the DA feels that public safety has not been given sufficient consideration."

There may not be much room for debate on the proposal this year as many important Democratic legislators are opposed to the idea from the get-go.

"I think this is a non-starter," said Gradess, of New York State Defenders Association.

Albany can be a place of trade-offs, though, and Cuomo could work to convince initial opponents to agree to a full package of bail reforms that also satisfy what they would see as progress.

Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David, told Gotham Gazette that he would be surprised to see opposition to the plan once the administration releases its full bill. "We can't be driven by fears, we have to be driven by data," said David. "We don't legislate based on fear, we legislate based on data."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

]]>
'Dangerousness' Aspect of Cuomo's Bail Plan Troubles Reformers Fri, 22 Jan 2016 00:06:24 +0000
Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6005:incoming-das-plan-to-join-thompson-and-vance-warrant-clearing-efforts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6005:incoming-das-plan-to-join-thompson-and-vance-warrant-clearing-efforts vance bratton nypdnews

DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews

 


 

In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of 1.3 million open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.

The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “Begin Again.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.

While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won a seventh four-year term, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.

“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at a November 17 press conference launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”

“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”

The success of Thompson’s first Begin Again event, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.

Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.

With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?

Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)

"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.

“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.

“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.

Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”

“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."

Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.

Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.

Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.

It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued each day in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of 359,432 summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.

If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.

That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!”

What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”

Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.

“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.

When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”

About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.

A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, announced a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.

“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”

Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”

Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to what he has called “the peace dividend” approach he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.

“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.” 

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

]]>
Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts Tue, 24 Nov 2015 03:52:49 +0000
Discussion of New York's 'Broken Bail System' Comes to Brooklyn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5930:discussion-of-new-yorks-broken-bail-system-comes-to-brooklyn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5930:discussion-of-new-yorks-broken-bail-system-comes-to-brooklyn de Blasio Lippman

Mayor de Blasio testifies in front of Judge Lippman (photo: Demetrius Freeman, Mayor's Office)


New York's “broken bail system” puts an estimated 50,000 people behind city bars each year simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. These people are accused of low-level, non-violent offenses, many of whom wind up not even seeing trial or being convicted of a crime. But, they do not have the means to pay bail, part of system being questioned by many of late, including the state’s chief judge, elected officials at various levels, activists, and the experts who spoke on a panel Tuesday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The panel was titled, “Why New York? Our Broken Bail System.”

"Money bail fails to distinguish between those who are the most dangerous and those who are low risk,” said panel moderator Shaila Dewan, of the New York Times, “but it easily distinguishes between those who have money and those who don’t. New York State’s own chief judge has called this system ‘ass backwards.’”

Tuesday’s discussion occurred just days after Jonathan Lippman, the very New York State chief judge Dewan referened, announced a series of initiatives aimed at addressing what he called the “unsafe and unfair bail system,” including an automatic review of all misdemeanor cases in which the defendant cannot pay bail within ten days of arraignment, and new training for judges to encourage them to use some of the other types of bail that are already available, rather than predominantly using cash bail for defendants.

The purpose of bail is to ensure that defendants return for their court dates, but for various reasons, in New York bail has overwhelmingly become something that keeps poor people in jail as they await their trials.

Panelists in Brooklyn discussed the human, economic, and criminal impacts of the way the system is being run.

Kicking off the conversation, Dewan said, "The Supreme Court has said, ‘in our society liberty is the norm, and detention without trial is the carefully limited exception.’ It has become, unfortunately, in practice, the norm."

Dewan pointed out that there are several different bail options available, such as allowing defendants to pay ten percent of the bail to the court up front and sign a paper promising to pay the rest later, or simply releasing defendants pending trial.

One key issue criminal justice reform advocates have with the cash bail system is the fact that those who are held in pretrial detention tend to have worse outcomes to their cases. "They get longer sentences, they get less favorable plea deals, they’re more likely to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit," Dewan said, "and - perhaps most importantly - they are more likely to commit new crimes. So, we think we’re holding people in jail before trial to protect the public, but in fact we may be increasing the crime that’s out there."

Judge George Grasso, a panel member, said now is the perfect time to evaluate "the issues impacting the fairness of our criminal justice system. I think Judge Jonathan Lippman really hit the heart of this bail issue this past Thursday, I think he used the term ‘Alice in Wonderland’ - referring to the fact that we have a system that metes out punishment first."

"There are far too many people in jail who are really pretrial and who pose no threat to society," Judge Grasso continued. "Without waiting for state legislature to act, we can and we must make substantive changes to this system."

To that end, New York City officials recently announced new measures to assist nonviolent offenders stuck in the city's bail vice. In late June, the City Council approved Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito's proposal to set aside $1.4 million of the city's budget for a citywide bail fund to help pay bail for low-level defendants whose bail is set at $2,000 or less.

Though some taxpayers may rebuke the idea of their money being used to bail people out of jail, Mark-Viverito argues that the bail fund would actually save the city money, given the fact that it costs the city a little over $450 a day per inmate to keep people locked up. According to Mark-Viverito, a defendant who cannot afford bail stays in jail for an average of 24 days for nonviolent offenses, like jumping a turnstile or marijuana possession.

Similar initiatives, like the Bronx Freedom Fund and the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, have had excellent results.

Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, told the crowd gathered at the Brooklyn Historical Society, "In the past five months, the bail fund has paid for 133 clients, at a cost of about $110,000. Ninety-seven percent have made their court dates, even though they had no financial incentive to return. These are individuals who would have been jailed, perhaps for months, for the lack of a few hundred dollars. Out on bail, they’ve had significantly improved case dispositions. Fifty percent have had or will have dismissals. Not a single client has been sentenced to additional jail time. Clients who are out have not been coerced to plead guilty."

In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a separate $17.8 million initiative to reduce unnecessary jail time for those awaiting trial. The program aims to help roughly 3,000 low-risk defendants per year by substituting cash bail with a "supervised release" program, which would allow poor defendants to be released and supervised until their trial, rather than detained on Rikers Island.

Judge Grasso, speaking of his own involvement in the development of city-wide initiatives to reform the broken bail system, said, "We are in the process right now of expanding supervised release for indigent defendants tried with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. They will use a risk assessment instrument and focus on linking defendants with appropriate services, and a contact regime in lieu of cash bail, to release people on their own recognizance. That’s what we’re working on expanding right now through Mayor de Blasio’s task force - I happen to be a co-chair of the subcommittee that recommended that."

When asked why judges don’t use the many alternative forms of bail that are available more often, Judge Grasso’s answer made a solution to the problem sound shockingly simple, “Frankly we need more training in the court system. Not only do the judges need to be trained, but the court clerks who prepare the paperwork for the judges and the court need to be trained in that.”

“There’s about seven other types of bail,” Judge Grasso continued, “What we really need to do is embark upon top-to-bottom training, so the paperwork is available, clerks know what’s going on, and the judges are trained in how to use different types of bail for different types of situations. That’s something that Judge Lippman said this past Thursday that he’d make a top priority.”

As Dewan pointed out during the question and answer portion of the discussion, typically, judges set bail for two reasons: “one, so that person will return to court; two, to protect public safety in the meantime.” Yet “in New York State, the law says you can only consider their likelihood of returning to court; you can’t consider public safety?” Dewan asked.

“One of the problems in the state of New York is the fact that we’re not supposed to take public safety into consideration [when setting bail],” Judge Grasso said. “You can consider community contacts, you can consider the strength of the charges, but can’t consider public safety directly.”

As a result, wealthy, dangerous people may get out of jail to await their trial, while nonviolent, poor people must remain behind bars until their day in court. “It’s been a real serious problem in the State of New York,” Judge Grasso said. “Judge Lippman has been proposing legislation to change that, and so far it has stalled.”

Some criminal justice reform advocates want the city to entirely do away with money bail for low-level offenses, which officials in Washington D.C. did in the 1990s, opting instead for a system in which most defendants are either detained because they are considered a flight or safety risk, or let go without bail.

However, in New York, such an overhaul would need to be approved by state lawmakers in Albany, where legislation to change the bail system has gone nowhere time and again.

When asked by the Brooklyn Historical Society crowd what the obstacle to ending money bail in New York City is, criminal justice reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA Glenn Martin, who was previously incarcerated on Rikers Island, remarked, “the bail bondsmen have a very strong lobby, and they give money to our elected officials in New York State, which influences their decision making.”

Speaking to the larger issue of mass incarceration, public defender Josh Saunders told the crowd on Tuesday, “Let’s not forget that we are the world leader in incarceration - the United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Are there people who need to be incarcerated? Sure, but are we also all participating in this kind of diseased fiction that the way we solve problems is to put people in cages? I think we’re doing that too.”

With 50,000 people - the population of Hoboken, New Jersey - locked up annually on Rikers awaiting trial solely because they cannot afford bail, the human cost of putting those “people in cages” can easily be forgotten. Panel member Miguel Padilla spent over a week at Rikers because he did not have the $1,000 he needed to buy his freedom. While driving his intoxicated brother-in-law home from a family gathering, Padilla was pulled over for a broken tail light, then arrested for driving with a suspended license. Desperate to see his wife and three children again, Padilla said he pleaded guilty “just so I could come home.” As a result of his brief stint in Rikers, Padilla lost both of his jobs and gained a criminal record, which in turn left him struggling to find a new job for over a year.

"We should ask ourselves,” Judge Gasso said, “what is the primary purpose of our criminal justice system? Do we want a system that is based primarily on the concept of punishment, or primarily on the concept of justice?

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13

]]>
Discussion of New York's 'Broken Bail System' Comes to Brooklyn Fri, 09 Oct 2015 20:15:23 +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!

***
by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

]]>
The Week That Was in New York Politics, Sept. 28-Oct. 2 Fri, 02 Oct 2015 15:59:23 +0000
At 'Begin Again,' Signs of New Approach to Broken Justice System http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5824:at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5824:at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system ken thompson jumaane williams laurie cumbo

DA Thompson, center, with Council Members Williams & Cumbo (@JumaaneWilliams)


During Father's Day weekend, hundreds of individuals received the gift of a new beginning. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office held a 'Begin Again' event to lift open arrest warrants related to summonses for low-level offenses ranging from public intoxication, the most common violation, to being in a park after closing. In total, 1,039 individuals from across all five boroughs attended the two-day event and 670 warrants were cleared.

The 'Begin Again' initiative is part of a larger summons reform movement that aims to make it easier for individuals to respond to summonses and ultimately, avoid arrest warrants. While the total number of summons filings in New York City has decreased significantly in recent years, the system remains strained, with a citywide backlog of over a million summonses.

In Brooklyn, District Attorney Ken Thompson's office indicated that the success of the event would lead to another in September, and that while similar events were held under former District Attorney Charles Hynes, the Father's Day weekend initiative saw the greatest number of warrants cleared in Brooklyn during comparable time periods. Other district attorneys do not appear quick to follow suit.

City leaders from Thompson to Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others, are discussing summons reform.

"New York City's criminal justice system is overburdened with severely backlogged courts and millions of New Yorkers with outstanding warrants for low-level, minor offenses," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement sent to Gotham Gazette.

"District Attorney Ken Thompson's Begin Again initiative is a forward-thinking approach that tackles this issue head on," Mark-Viverito said, "enabling individuals to resolve their warrants and move on with a clean slate without the threat of impending arrest."

Thompson's office is quick to stress that warrants and the summonses that led to them were not simply dismissed wholesale, but that each individual who wanted to 'Begin Again' was given a fair hearing, with most warrants adjudicated and summonses cleared - as is the case when people show up to their summons-dictated court appearance.

While the initiative has received widespread support, some expressed reservations. "It does create a moral hazard that sends the message that people can expect such amnesties in the future," said Heather Mac Donald of The Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "It's a real issue and it has to be weighed against the public good in clearing these backlogs of warrants."

By using the term "amnesty," Mac Donald gets at a key issue for critics, who say that people should follow the law in the first place and pay the consequences for breaking it and for missing any mandated court appearance. People, including NYPD Commissioner Bratton, are hesitant to give the appearance of amnesty, believing that if New Yorkers believe there are no consequences to their actions, law-breaking will likely increase.

But Dawn Ryan, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society's Brooklyn criminal office, notes a distinction between the clearance of warrants and actual amnesty. "To me, amnesty is telling those who received the summonses that they may throw them away and forget they ever received them," said Ryan. By contrast, at 'Begin Again,' "they're still being held accountable in terms of showing up in response to the summons and having this matter resolved before a judge."

At 'Begin Again' events, those with outstanding warrants are assigned a Legal Aid attorney and brought before a judge, who hears the reason for the original summons and for not appearing in court, thus earning the warrant.

The Brooklyn District Attorney's office hailed 'Begin Again' a success and Ryan stated the event attracted so many people on its second day that the line remained open for an additional 45 minutes beyond the scheduled time. But the 670 warrants cleared barely make a dent in the 1.2 million open warrants related to unanswered summonses throughout New York City.

"It's just a drop in the bucket," acknowledged City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council's courts and legal services committee. An estimated one in seven New Yorkers have an outstanding summons warrant and with less than one tenth of one percent of open summons warrants resolved thus far through the 'Begin Again' initiative, the need for further reform measures becomes evident. "I thought it seemed to be a great success for what it was," said Lancman. "But in the scheme of things, it's not really a sustainable strategy for getting at the over one million warrants that are outstanding."

The staggering number of open summons warrants is one of the reasons why Lancman, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, and New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman are among those advocating for certain low-level criminal offenses to be reclassified as civil penalties. A reclassification of some offenses would lessen the burden on the summons court system while also granting a reprieve to individuals who have committed non-violent, so-called 'quality-of-life' infractions. Proponents of such measures have argued that summonses are disproportionately issued to poor people of color and that arrest warrants resulting from failure to respond to a summons can have grave repercussions that far outweigh the original offense.

But even certain summons reform measures, it would seem, are backlogged. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced "Justice Reboot," an initiative including a planned overhaul of the summons process. Among the proposed changes were a new summons form making the court appearance date more prominent, robocall and text message reminders for those with summonses, and a more flexible system allowing individuals to appear in court up to a week in advance of their scheduled court date. While these measures were originally scheduled to begin this summer, they are now slated to start in early fall.

Sarah Solon, chief external strategy officer at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, stated that the timing for the proposed reforms remains unchanged and that the measures will go into effect sequentially. "The new summons form has to roll out first, because it will collect the cell phone numbers that will allow for text message reminders and contain information about the flexible appearance dates," said Solon via e-mail. That new form will be released citywide within the next few months, Solon said, and going forward the form will collect data on an individual's race/ethnicity in order to ensure transparency in the summons process and provide important data.

The next Begin Again event is also scheduled for the fall-it will be held on September 12 in East New York. The flyer for the event - which will be posted around the borough and shared on social media as the one advertising the last one was - says, "we can help you take care of that old warrant." The literature seeks to reassure people: "over 1,000 people attended the last event," it says, followed by "no one was arrested" and "everyone got help."

Ryan said she and her colleagues at The Legal Aid Society hope other DA offices will follow Brooklyn District Attorney Thompson's lead in hosting such events.

So, apparently, does Thompson. In a July 15 letter addressed and hand-delivered to Mayor de Blasio with Chief Judge Lippman copied, Thompson urged the mayor to take the Brooklyn 'Begin Again' initiative citywide. Of the current way of doing things, Thompson wrote, "We simply cannot continue down this path any longer."

***
Brooke L. Williams is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter @williamslbrooke
@GothamGazette

]]>
At 'Begin Again,' Signs of New Approach to Broken Justice System Sun, 26 Jul 2015 05:00:00 +0000
Through Committee, Bill to Create Office of Civil Justice Heads Toward Law http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5740:through-committee-bill-to-create-office-of-civil-justice-heads-toward-law http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5740:through-committee-bill-to-create-office-of-civil-justice-heads-toward-law MMV Levine and co

Mark-Viverito, front, & Levine, behind her, are the lead sponsors (photo: William Alatriste)


New York City is one step closer to having a new Office of Civil Justice. On Tuesday, the City Council's Committee on Courts and Legal Services unanimously passed a bill that would create the office, to be tasked with assessing, coordinating, and helping reform the civil legal services available to low-income New Yorkers. Among the most pressing concerns are ensuring legal representation for immigrants facing deportation and tenants facing eviction.

]]>
Through Committee, Bill to Create Office of Civil Justice Heads Toward Law Tue, 26 May 2015 18:42:12 +0000