Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1042 Tue, 24 Oct 2017 03:46:59 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Key to Vision of Closing Rikers, City Council Bail Fund Moves Through State Process http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6206:key-to-vision-of-closing-rikers-city-council-bail-fund-moves-through-state-process http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6206:key-to-vision-of-closing-rikers-city-council-bail-fund-moves-through-state-process MMV SOTC bail fund story

Mark-Viverito delivers her State of the City (photo: William Alatriste)


Last year, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito unveiled her plan for a fund that would cover bail for poor individuals charged with low-level criminal offenses who would otherwise be forced to wait in a city jail for their court date. The Council dedicated $1.4 million of budget funds to back the project, which is nearing launch.

The program, if successful, could not only keep hundreds of individuals from staying in jail because they can't afford bail, but also lead to the expansion of state law that oversees and licenses bail funds, allowing for more criminal charges to be covered and higher bails paid.

The Council bail fund is going through a fairly lengthy process to get up and running, with no clear start date more than a year after the initiative was announced. Mark-Viverito recently said she expects it to be functional in the coming months, but that the bureaucratic process of getting licensed by state overseers takes time. The fund has just been approved as a not-for-profit charity by the state attorney general's office, the second in four key steps. A heightened sense of urgency around the bail plan has emerged after Mark-Viverito announced this year that she hopes it will be a key element of actualizing "the dream" of closing Rikers Island jails. 

About 10,000 people are currently held in Rikers Island and other city jails, most awaiting a court appearance after being arrested for a low-level, non-violent offense. Some have been in jail for weeks or months because they can't afford bail and the criminal justice system moves at a snail's pace. It is a situation that many, including Mark-Viverito, have decried with increasing intensity over the past two years.

"We need to take a comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform that ensures a fairer system, improves police community relations, and addresses the fact that far too many of our young people – mostly low-income black and Latino males – are locked up at Rikers," Mark-Viverito said during her 2015 State of the City address.

She continued: "For instance, if you are accused of jumping a turnstile or committing other minor offenses in New York City, you may be locked up. And if you can't afford bail you will spend on average 15 days in jail. The results are predictable: people lose their jobs, or their housing, and cannot take care of their children while they are in custody. These are people who are accused of minor offenses and are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law. This is not justice."

During this year's State of the City address, on Feb. 11, the speaker said that she wants to see "the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality." She announced a new criminal justice commission, led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, that will make recommendations for how to improve the criminal justice system.

Last week while discussing her belief that Rikers Island should eventually be closed, Mark-Viverito cited her bail fund as something that will reduce the population over time. Asked when she expected the bail fund to start, Mark-Viverito said she is waiting to be licensed by the state.

"We're waiting for the state, unfortunately, there's some state authorizations you need...some sort of licensure is needed," Mark-Viverito told reporters. "We needed, initially, a federal authorization, we've received that, we're waiting for the state, once that's done, we're ready to roll out. It's just we can't...without that authorization. So hopefully within the next months. It's just a normal process, obviously we are on top of it, but it's a normal process, it's bureaucratic."

In follow-up conversation with Gotham Gazette, representatives of Mark-Viverito's office stressed the process is going well, is not an undue burden, and that the hope is to launch the program in a few months. The office said the process to incorporate the program began officially in July 2015. The first step involved registering as a non-profit on the federal level; the second, attorney general approval as a charity. With that second step complete, the application will go to the state Department of Financial Services, which licenses charitable bail funds.

As approved by the AG, the fund shows "Initial directors" George McDonald, of The Doe Fund and David Howard, and Alphonso Wyatt, who were previously associated with the the fund. According to its bylaws, "The sole member of the Corporation shall be The Doe Fund, Inc., a New York not-for-profit corporation." McDonald is the founder and CEO of The Doe Fund, which has worked for decades to employ, house, and train homeless New Yorkers to help them stabilize their lives.

According to the filing, "the purpose" of the new organization will be "to assist indigent defendents charged with low-level crimes avoid the experience, complications and related hardships of pretrial detention caused by their inability to afford bail." Once it becomes a bail fund, it will "provide bail assistance" and "research, analyze and document the effectiveness and social impact of" its activities.

Before 2012 Mark-Viverito's bail fund wouldn't have needed state approval because charitable bail funds operated in a legal gray area. That year, Bronx state Senator Gustavo Rivera successfully advocated for a state law to oversee bail funds after a judge ordered an organization in his district to stop covering bail.

Now, as bail funds grow in popularity, Rivera said he is working with the state Department of Financial Services to smooth the application process and guide smaller groups that are interested in opening funds. Rivera said that as the evidence of the efficacy of such programs grows he hopes to expand the law that now only covers misdemeanor offenses and has a cap of $2,000 bail.

Rivera was approached by the Bronx Defenders (a nonprofit legal defense group) in 2010 shortly after he defeated disgraced then-Sen. Pedro Espada for his seat. When the bill passed in 2012, the Bronx Freedom Fund became the state's first licensed charitable bail fund.

Since then the group has shown promising results, which Mark-Viverito and others have noticed. It released a study last year showing that 97 percent of its clients returned to all their court appearances - some to more than 15 dates in a row. The group says that 27 times its bail money was returned even before the conclusion of a case. Out of 188 cases, 62 percent ended in a dismissal of all charges, 22 percent in a violation that carries no record, and 12 percent with a misdemeanor plea and no jail time.

The fund has $100,000 to pay bail and it is periodically replenished when their clients fulfill their court obligations. Individuals are interviewed by the fund to determine their eligibility. Alyssa Work, former director of the Freedom Fund, told Gotham Gazette last year that the application process involved a defendant filling out a form, and her checking to see if they have family and community ties or steady employment. She also would evaluate their criminal record.

Rivera has held a two roundtables on bail funds and has heard some concerns from interested groups. "We've been tweaking the paperwork you have to go through to get people licensed as bondsmen," said Rivera. "We've been discussing having the application fee waived for certain smaller organizations that aren't flush with cash, some folks have found it difficult to find someone at [Department of Financial Services] to answer questions. But the most important thing is that we've been working with DFS on this all along and they've been very helpful."

Organizations wishing to start a bail fund have to complete four major steps: register as a non-profit under federal tax laws; register as a charity under New York State law through the AG's office; obtain a charitable bail license from the state DFS; and, finally, obtain an individual bail bond license from DFS.

Mark-Viverito's office is now on to the third step.

Obtaining a charitable bail organization license from DFS requires a detailed application, a fee of $1,000, and the fingerprinting of all officers, directors, trustees, and executive personnel.

Rivera said that while he intends to keep working with DFS on the application process, he does "hope to eventually introduce legislation that expands the legal parameters of bail funds." Rivera continued, "Right now the cap on bail is $2,000, we might want to move that. There is a small list of offenses currently covered and we may want to expand that list. We know we are helping people whose only crime is being poor, who can't afford bail, allowing them to be able to fight for their freedom, when they otherwise might be sitting in Rikers or somewhere else."

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito said, "New York City is proud to lead the way in reforming a broken bail system that unjustly subjected our young people of color to senseless violence and abuse. By approaching this issue thoughtfully and deliberatively, we hope that our proposal for a citywide bail fund can serve as a model for other cities and municipalities seeking to change the way poverty and the criminal justice system intersect."

Like Mark-Viverito, Sen. Rivera supports closing Rikers. Mayor Bill de Blasio called the idea "noble," but has said he doubts it is achievable. "My job is to level with the people of New York City," de Blasio recently told reporters. "This would cost billions and billions of dollars, be logistically very difficult, and we don't have the space right now."

De Blasio has, however, also focused on bail reform, calling the current system unfair, with a burden that keeps the poor in jail for crimes they haven't been tried for, much less convicted of.

De Blasio has a supervised release program scheduled to begin March 1. Funded by asset forfeiture funds from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the City Tax Levy, the program will provide judges with the option of sending those charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies to supervised release programs overseen by agencies run in each of the five boroughs, rather than setting bail. The plan is expected to eventually serve 3,000 defendants.

"There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial," de Blasio said in a July statement announcing the program. "Money bail is a problem because – as the system currently operates in New York – some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose. This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Key to Vision of Closing Rikers, City Council Bail Fund Moves Through State Process Thu, 03 Mar 2016 21:28:32 +0000
Combatting New York's Enduring Quality-of-Life Problem: Litter http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5905:litter-new-yorks-enduring-quality-of-life-problem http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5905:litter-new-yorks-enduring-quality-of-life-problem garcia sanitation

DSNY Commissioner Garcia (photo: @NYCSanitation)


New York is safer and more prosperous than it's been in years, but the city still can't figure out how to stop people from trashing streets with litter.

Despite a focus on quality of life issues, City Hall has made limited progress in dealing with a problem that has plagued mayors since the days when animals roamed Broadway. Even a small army of workers from the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), business improvement districts, and the Doe Fund still can't fully police 6,000 miles of city streets and more than 27,000 public waste and recycling baskets on a daily basis.

Two bills discussed at a recent hearing held by the City Council's sanitation committee aim to increase penalties for littering and illegal dumping, by doubling them or more in some cases, in an effort to curb bad behavior.

"It's not a cure-all for littering. It's not going to solve the littering problem that we have on Staten Island and our city. But it's part of a multi-pronged approach that my office and this Council has taken to combat littering," said Council Member Steven Matteo, Republican Minority Leader from Staten Island, at the hearing. "Littering is out of control in our city and it's out of control because we're doing it to ourselves."

The city still receives high cleanliness scores, as determined by the Mayor's Office of Operations, though the proportion of streets considered "acceptably clean" has slowly declined to 92.7 percent - though even those numbers have been challenged. With tourism and population growing every year, stray takeout containers and over-stuffed wastebaskets have become common sights. According to a Council briefing report, monthly 311 complaints about dirty sidewalks have nearly doubled from approximately 700 in July 2010 to 1,200 in April 2015.

One bill -- introduced by Matteo with four other sponsors -- would increase the fines for littering from $50 to $250 for a first violation and up to $450 for a third or subsequent one.

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia supports the bill, but warns about enforcement. Garcia said it would still be difficult for DSNY agents to issue tickets due to a lack of authority. A ticket can only be written if the offender is witnessed littering and agrees to provide their name. Sanitation agents aren't allowed to pull over drivers witnessed littering either. Because of this, DSNY issued just 746 littering violations from July 2014 through June 2015 (fiscal year 2015).

Garcia said that if littering was reclassified as a criminal offense it would fall under the purview of the NYPD, which has larger issues to worry about. DSNY plans to begin sending stern letters to drivers caught in the act this fall, though Council members agreed that was unlikely to be a successful deterrent.

Another bill -- introduced by Council Member Karen Koslowitz, a Queens Democrat, with eight other sponsors -- would increase fines for illegally dumping residential or commercial waste inside public baskets from $100 to $200 for a first violation and up to $600 for a third or subsequent violation. DSNY supports the bill, but wants it to also include penalties for illegal dumping next to baskets.

A 2005 DSNY study showed illegal dumping accounting for 20 percent of all waste in public baskets. Due to some confusion over the state's new e-waste ban, TVs and computer parts have also begun showing up on street corners.

After the Council hearing, Garcia told Gotham Gazette that the city is always looking for ways to make waste disposal easier by installing new types of baskets and increasing education. She said that DSNY plans to continue fighting litter based in part on the "broken windows" theory often cited by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.

"If people see one gum wrapper, they think nothing of adding their fourth and fifth gum wrapper," she said. "So we really try and stay ahead of it."

While some New Yorkers don't seem to care about keeping their streets clean, multiple Quinnipiac polls show that others are bothered by the issue.

In 2009, when streets were rated at their peak cleanliness levels, 42 percent of registered voters said the city wasn't doing enough about "quality of life offenses" such as littering and loud music. In 1998, when streets were rated slightly dirtier than today, 51 percent of residents said they considered littering to be a "very serious problem."

Robin Nagle, an NYU anthropology professor who specializes in "discard studies," said the city has been trying to tackle this issue for a very long time. Under George Waring, a prominent sanitation commissioner during the 1890s, nearly 1,000 young children were enrolled in Juvenile Street Cleaning Leagues to police the streets and raise awareness by writing fake tickets.

Nagle doesn't think such an effort would be successful today, but said there needs to be a greater sense of shared responsibility. She said that other countries have already found ways to crack down on littering and wondered if society's attitude toward it will someday shift similar to smoking.

"How do we help people be a little less selfish without telling them that they are selfish?" she asked. "When you're on the street you're sharing a commons. You're sharing a place that is not only yours, but is ours."

Anti-littering messages from government agencies are posted on bus stops, subways, trash cans and DSNY vehicles. They range from the annual summer environmental appeal of "Clean Streets = Clean Beaches" to the MTA's subway announcement about trash-related track fires causing delays.

Recently, elected officials and community members have decided to address the problem on a more local level. For the second year in a row, the City Council funded a $3.5 million clean-up initiative in Fiscal Year 2015 to help district efforts. Other officials have also taken up the cause.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo's "Operation Clean Sweep" is responsible for cleaning 120 locations since April. His office has partnered with local businesses to create public service announcements and help maintain their areas through programs such as the city's "Adopt-a-Basket." In April, Oddo also announced a public-private partnership between the Institute of Scrap Recycling, Jason Learning, and multiple city agencies to create a pro-recycling/anti-litter curriculum in 10 local schools.

"Litter is a problem that is created by a small number of people, but one that affects everyone. All of us have to deal with the filth that collects on the side of the road, making our community look uninviting and run down," said Jennifer Sammartino, Oddo's communications director, in an emailed statement. "The more litter we have on our streets the more it becomes an accepted part of life."

A group of frustrated citizens working with the Greenpoint Chamber of Commerce have taken on the problem in Brooklyn with a project called "Curb Your Litter: Greenpoint." Funded by $570,000 obtained from a state settlement with ExxonMobil over a local oil spill, the project will spend three years studying the sources and types of litter with the help of cutting-edge sustainable planning firm Closed Loops. They will also work with local businesses, create educational material and soon launch an interactive website for the community to have input about new baskets.

The project's director, Caroline Bauer, said that so far volunteers have picked up nearly 1,500 pounds of trash on 135 blocks this year. She supports the two new City Council bills, which may be voted on at an upcoming committee hearing, but said that ultimately it's up to New Yorkers to come together over what should be a simple issue.

"Litter is something that nobody enjoys," said Bauer. "It really erodes the way that you think of the community and your neighborhood."

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by Cole Rosengren for Gotham Gazette
@ColeRosengrenNY
@GothamGazette

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Combatting New York's Enduring Quality-of-Life Problem: Litter Thu, 24 Sep 2015 22:44:21 +0000