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Bloomberg Pushes For Control Of Juvenile Justice System

Photo provided by New York Public Library
New York State reformatory, plumbing shop, circa 1921.

Every year New York City sends of its most troubled teens hundreds of miles away, Far from family, they are confined in institutions that by many accounts are brutal, ineffective -- and expensive. These institutions have been deemed so brutal and ineffective by the federal government that the Department of Justice threatened to take over the system if the state did not make drastic improvements to the quality of care.

Today, Assemblymember Karim Camara is expected to introduce a bill that would remove New York City kids from that system and give the city control over where it sends its juvenile offenders. The legislation, which was drafted in close concert with the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would keep juvenile offenders from being sent to the upstate juvenile detention centers that have been the center of immense scrutiny because of their culture of violence and lack of proper mental health care.

The city's legislation has been hailed by advocates who work with juvenile offenders. They say the bill will keep offenders closer to home and would provide the young people with the specific type of treatment they need rather than using the state's "one type of detention fits all" system.

The bill also leaves questions -- does the city have enough service providers and alternative programs to take care of all its youthful offenders, and what will happen to the state's system if New York City is no longer part of it? The bill will face almost certain opposition from unions that represent staff at the upstate juvenile facilities who see their jobs as under siege.

Bringing It Home

As of January of this year the state's juvenile detention faculties held around 600 youthful offenders, 400 of them hailing from the five boroughs. Offenders aged 7 to 15 are housed in these detention centers -- 60 percent of them having committed minor offenses such as truancy or graffiti.

Reports have documented nightmarish scenarios within the detention centers where they are held -- cases of physical, mental and sexual abuse by staff. The prevalence of such abuse prompted the Justice Department's threat to take over the system.

Furthermore the facilities are hundreds of miles north of their homes in the city -- leaving the offenders far from the support of their families. And once released detainees seem ill prepared to reenter society.

In his state of the city speech in January, Bloomberg proposed allowing localities control over their youthful offenders and asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to issue an executive order to make it so.

"The current system is not helping kids, it isn't helping taxpayers and is isn't helping public safety," Bloomberg said at the time. "The bottom line is, I think we all agree we need to stop sending kids miles away from their families and communities. And, instead, authorize the city to fully operate its own juvenile system here in the five boroughs."

Cuomo had other ideas. The governor and Gladys Carrion, commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services", were already at work to reduce the size of the juvenile justice system around the state -- closing underutilized facilities, recommending that judges sentence low-risk offenders to alternative treatment and working to retrain staff to better care for offenders. The budget process, incorporating many of these changes had already begun.

In other words, Bloomberg's plan came at the wrong time. "I think people were already focused on the budget when this was introduced," said Marsha Weissman executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives who was also a member of Gov. David Paterson's Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice. "The work Gov. Cuomo and Commissioner Carrion are doing was good, and I think people thought, 'We've made so much positive progress,' that it was hard to deal with the next step."

Despite the early setback, Bloomberg's office continued working with legislators on the issue. "I don't think the governor has rejected the idea," said one Bloomberg administration figure early last week, "I just think he is busy." The administration remained "optimistic."

Then according to Camara the Bloomberg administration took note of an op-ed he penned for the May 3 edition of the Amsterdam News titled Juvenile Justice Needs Reform. In the article Camara detailed what he sees as the injustices of the state system and how he thought it should be reformed. The Bloomberg administration contacted him, and they began work on a bill.

Camara's bill which is officially a "New York City Program Bill" will introduce Bloomberg's concept to the legislature.

The measure, titled the Juvenile Justice Realignment Act, would allow a placement agency"designated by the mayor of the city of New York to oversee the care, maintenance and supervision of adjudicated juvenile delinquents or juvenile offenders." It would operate and transfer youth to secure, medium security and non-secure facilities in the city. The agency would, "establish, operate and maintain treatment programs and other services for youth placed with or committed to the placement agency and programs for the care of conditionally released youth.”

In the Legislature

The debate over the bill will start in the Democrat controlled Assembly. Calls to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office for comment were not returned.

Amy Paulin from Westchester, head of the Assembly committee on children and family, said she basically supports the legislation.

"If kids in trouble need treatment we should keep them home and near their family. We want to do this. The system is shrinking and it will continue to shrink but we need to make sure we have the right services in place," she said.

Paulin, however, is concerned that the city may not have enough services for all of its juvenile offenders. "There aren’t enough services in New York City right now," she said. "They use Westchester services because they are close, but there are a lot of things that need to be put in place before we pull the plug."

Camara said he is confident the city will be able to care for its population of troubled youth. "I believe we have enough existing services in New York City. We have some great nonprofits and alternative sentencing programs," he said.

Advocates say that the city already has a record of nurturing nationally recognized alternative-sentencing programs. These, they say, cost far less than paying for a youth to stay in a state run facility. According to Weissman, detaining a child in the state system costs over $200,000 a year while alternative programs cost $10,000 to $20,000 a year.

Alternative sentencing programs also boast of dramatically lower recidivism rates. Some 80 to 90 percent of young people held in state programs commit further offenses compared to a little over 20 percent in alternative programs.

Weissman is perhaps most enthusiastic about how local control could aid in overseeing the quality of the programs. While the current situation places kids from the city hundreds of miles away from the community and people that care about their progress, the new system would keep kids near their families, under the watchful eye of local government. Weissman thinks this would make it much easier for parents to keep track of their children and hold local officials accountable.

Weissman sees a place for the state to monitor the quality of the city’s programs. Camara’s bill does not specifically call for that, but he said things could change as the legislation gains sponsors and makes its way through committees."I am open to it," said Camara. "We will be having lots of discussions about the bill going forward. I could see the state having a role overseeing the city system just as the federal government oversees the state's."

Fewer Jobs, Distant Jobs

The Civil Service Employees Association"is already irate about the loss of jobs in upstate communities due to the shrinking of the juvenile justice system and planned prison closures. This Bloomberg administration's move will likely draw more outcry. Union heads have argued that communities could be put in danger by "non-secure" facilities in their neighborhoods. They say employees in the state facilities do dangerous work that keeps the state free from dangerous young offenders.

"Renee Greco was murdered by clients, and these are the people they want to move into the communities," Steve Madarasz, spokesman for the association told the Gazette last year, referring to a woman who was killed by escaped juvenile offenders. "We believe the public shouldn't be put at risk, the staff shouldn't be put at risk and even the clients shouldn't be put at risk."

Whatever the merits of the union's arguments, the tide seems be turning aganst its members.

Cuomo made it clear in his budget speech earlier this year that he is concerned about the upstate economy but he will not keep people employed to watch empty prisons and detention centers. "If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs," he said. "Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don’t put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs. That’s not what this state is all about, and that has to end this session."

It is too early to judge what kind of support Camara's bill will receive. The office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the office of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and the governor's office did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Office Of Child and Family Services said they would not comment until the bill has been introduced and they have had time to review it.

The fact that the bill only deals with New York City may drive off support from legislators who hail from outside the five boroughs.

Sen. Neil Breslin, who represents Albany, said that he supports the idea. "I would defer to the people from New York City," said Breslin. I think people from the city should be closer to their families." He added, "I don't think there will be a great outcry against it."

Weissman said she hopes there will be progress made this year. "I think the issue is still on the table for this year and if it doesn’t get passed this year I think we’ve done a good job laying the groundwork for future discussion."

Camara said that one thing is clear to him, "Regardless of the outcome of this bill we have to do something about those facilities. We have to change the juvenile justice system."

Concerns Raised over City Role in Deporting Immigrants

Karen Barrueto created this artwork after visiting someone in a federal detention center for immigrants in south Texas.

Growing up in Mexico City, Ricardo Muniz dreamed about being able to just be himself someday. He always knew he was gay and was constantly subject to anti-gay slurs or even death threats.

"It's difficult to come out in Mexico," said Muniz. "I don't remember a happy childhood."

At 15, shortly after he came out, his mother was so concerned about his well being that she sent him to New York to live with his aunt. "I heard there is justice and people can be who they are regardless of their sexual orientation," said Muniz, now 25. "I wanted to start a new life in America, to be free."

But he didn't realize that the real America differed from the one he imagined. After spending 20 months in detention, Muniz now faces deportation back to Mexico -- even though he has not been convicted of any crime.

Muniz is one of many immigrants who face deportation after being caught up in the criminal justice system -- regardless of the charges against them and regardless of whether they are guilty. Under a federal program called the Criminal Alien Program, New York City law enforcement officials give the names of all people arrested to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. If ICE identifies someone as an immigrant, then the agency asks to transfer the person to federal facilities where the immigrant remains pending deportation hearings.

The city Department of Correction has given names to the federal government and allowed for the transfer of immigrants -- despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg's outspoken support for immigration and his issuance of Executive Order 41, which prohibits city workers from inquiring about immigration status when the people seek services from a city agency or witnesses a crime.

A Fight's Consequences

The trouble for Muniz began in July 2009 when he and his friends were attacked with bats and belts after a quarrel with a patron at a bar in Brooklyn, according to the report Muniz filed with the police. He suffered serious injury in his face and body.

"Ricardo was a victim of a hate crime," said Karina Claudio-Betancourt, a coordinator and interpreter at Make the Road New York, an advocacy group serving low-income people.

During the fight, the patron, a 65-year-old man, fell and injured his head, resulting in a lengthy hospital stay. A few weeks later, the police arrested Muniz and his friends, charging them with assault.

That began a nightmare that still haunts Muniz. He was held at Rikers Island pending trial because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed a detainer on him. A detainer is the document the federal government issues to a local jail or correctional facility when ICE wants custody of an immigrant, legal or illegal, in that facility for purposes of instituting removal proceedings.

"I had double difficulties because I am gay and Latino," said Muniz of his time in jail. "I was attacked numerous times and verbally abused. People stole my food and hit me because of my sexual orientation."

"It scarred me psychologically," added Muniz, who broke down several times during the interview. "This is the experience I would not wish on anyone."

In late March, he was exonerated and released, ending 20 months in jail for a crime that he never committed. But Muniz now faces deportation because he is undocumented.

How It Works

Generally, when a deportable immigrant is released from jail because he or she finished his sentenced or was found innocent, the jail receives a request from ICE to detain the person for 48 hours. This gives ICE enough time to transfer this person to a federal facilities, many far from New York City. Once the arrestees are transferred to remote facilities, the chances of getting legal help become slim. Although the Criminal Alien Program may focus on undocumented immigrants, a report by the Immigration Policy Council found, it "identifies legal immigrants as well as unauthorized immigrants who are deportable based on the current crime or a prior crime."

Many of the detention facilities are in poor conditions and provide inadequate access to medical care or communications. According to the ICE's own figures, 120 immigrants died in detention between 2003 and March 2011.

The city does not have to comply with the federal government's request to hold the immigrant, said Bridget Kessler, a clinical teaching fellow for the Cardozo Law School Immigration Justice Clinic. She said a detainer from ICE is non-binding. In fact, many cities around the country have chosen not to participate in ICE's efforts, such as Berkeley, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Calls for Change

In an op-ed column in the New York Times by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Andrew Friedman, a co-executive director of Make the Road New York, called on Bloomberg to follow these cities and change New York's policy.

Most of the immigrants transferred to federal custody and then deported "have their due process rights violated," they wrote. "The process is too rushed to ensure proper identification of status and identity, let alone confirmation of criminal background."

Stringer and Freidman charge that New York's involvement in the policy costs the city millions of dollars and deters immigrants from reporting crimes. But they say, "Perhaps what is most disturbing is that sometimes legal immigrants who have been convicted of no crime are caught up in this system."

The column also mentions the pressure on local governments to adopt Secure Communities, a program designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are deportable under immigration law. Under Secure Communities, participating jails submit fingerprints of those arrested not only to criminal databases, but to immigration databases as well. The program is scheduled to be in every jail in the country by 2013.

Meanwhile, to counter the growing trend of adopting programs like Criminal Alien Program and Secure Communities, the Association for the Bar of the City of New York in February submitted a proposal to limit the collaboration between the city Department of Correction and ICE. The association instead calls for the city to allow immigrant New Yorkers to face deportation charges here, rather than in remote places far away from supportive family members and available pro bono or otherwise affordable legal counsel.

The mayor’s office, though, has defended its decision to cooperate with ICE, saying it is a public safety issue.

"The mayor’s Executive Order 41 allows immigrants to gain access to city services and report crimes with no fear of being questioned about immigration status,” John Feinblatt the mayor’s chief policy advisor and criminal justice coordinator wrote in a letter to the Times. "But when it comes to immigrants arrested for criminal activities, the executive order ensures cooperation with federal authorities."

Raising the specter of terrorism, Feinblatt continued, " As our country has learned tragically, when government agencies fail to cooperate and share information, not only is public safety compromised, so is national security."

To Muniz, such statements are ironic.

"I am a hard worker. People like me should be protected," he said. "In this country, you are supposed to be innocent before proven guilty. But it is the other way around."

Despite his misfortune, he has been luckier than most detainees. One of his friends also involved in the fight was deported before any trial. According to a report titled Jailed Without Justice released by Amnesty USA, more than 80 percent of immigrant detainees do not have legal representation.

"There are many people out there who cannot speak out," said Muniz. "Many of them are innocent. They are hardworking people just like everybody else."

Muniz thanked his mother for seeking help from non-profit organizations when his was in jail. The Cardozo Law School Immigration Justice Clinic has submitted a request asking ICE to release him because of the harsh circumstanced that he has been subject to and to stop the deportation proceeding. ICE granted the first request but denied the second.

Muniz is due back in court for his status hearing soon. Currently he is in a program called Alternative to Detention and is required to report to ICE on a regular basis.

Larry Tung is a Brooklyn-based journalist and media artist.

Court Allows Man Who Falsely Confessed to Murder to Seek Money from the State

douglas warney
Photo New York State courts
Overturning lower courts, the state's highest bench issued a ruling that will allow Douglas Warney, who was convicted on the basis of what could have been a coerced confession, to seek financial compensation from the state.

Recently Gotham Gazette reported on the confession of Douglas Warney, who was convicted for a 1996 murder in Rochester but was later exonerated when DNA determined he was actually innocent.

Nevertheless, two New York courts found that he should not receive a state settlement compensating him for his wrongful conviction and the subsequent nine years he spent in prison. The court said his false confession constituted misconduct and so barred him from receiving compensation.

In late March, though, the state's highest court ruled in Warney's favor, reversing the lower courts' dismissal of his claim.

Warney's lawsuit seeking compensation had been brought in the Court of Claims, which hears cases against the state. In its ruling, the court is to rely on the Court of Claims Act and the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act, which requires that a claimant seeking compensation had been convicted of a crime, sentenced to imprisonment and served at least part of the sentence. In addition, in order to receive a settlement, the claimant must have been pardoned on the ground of innocence or had a conviction that was reversed, vacated or dismissed.

The Court of Claims, however, rejected Warney's suit because language in the statute bars compensation for wrongful convictions that were caused by the defendant's own "misconduct." In other words, although DNA unequivocally proved that Warney is innocent, the confession he gave the police, which was used to convict him, constituted "misconduct" in the view of the Court of Claims judge, Renee Forgensi Minarik.

Allegations of Misconduct

The specific issue confronting the Court of Appeals was whether Minarik had improperly dismissed Warney's case without allowing the litigation to proceed further. The judge had decided that Warney's papers at the earliest stage of litigation should disclose in detail how his confession came about. The Court of Appeals opinion written by Judge Carmen Ciparick/a> agreed with Warney's counsel, Peter Neufeld, that Warney did not have to submit his evidentiary proof that early in the litigation proceedings.

Judge Robert Smith, who appeared particularly concerned when the case was argued in Albany, had posed many questions to the state's attorney, Alison Nathan, who is expected to become a federal judge. Smith asked how Warney could have confessed to specific facts of the crime that he couldn't have known both because of his limited mental abilities and because there is no question that he is innocent. Smith questioned whether the police interrogators gave Warney information, known only to them and the real perpetrator, that Warney then parroted back when asked about the murder.

At oral arguments and in his concurring opinion, Smith referred to the meaning of "coerced confession" and defined it as the sort of "calculated manipulation that appears present here." In general, though, Smith concurred with the majority opinion, which relied largely on procedural technicalities surrounding the dismissal. It did not give Warney's lawyers an opportunity to prove that it was not his acts that constituted misconduct. Smith feared that would lead to more general arguments against dismissal.

Criminal Knowledge

Warney, who had a history of making false police reports, has claimed that he had been denied access to a lawyer after police detained him for questioning in the murder. Warney eventually admitted to the murder in an unusually detailed confession -- one containing details that only the true perpetrator and the police could have known. But after he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life, Warney, who was then represented by the Innocence Project, claimed innocence. It was nine years later that DNA testing excluded him as a match. His conviction was reversed based on newly discovered evidence.

In ruling on Warney's request for compensation, lower courts said Warney had not offered convincing evidence that the police must have fed him detail of the crime. Ciparick's opinion reversed the lower courts , which had said that Warney would have had to present convincing evidence in the initial litigation on a possible settlement that the police fed him the details.

The appeals court determined that Warney did not have to prove his case in the lower courts but simply provide enough evidence to keep the case in court for trial. In other words, the Court of Appeals found it was premature for the Court of Claims judge to decide that she was not convinced by the facts Warney presented.

In his submission to the Court of Claims, Warney maintained that his conviction "was the direct result of the intentional and malicious actions of members of the [police] who fabricated and coerced a false confession from ... a man whom they knew had a history of serious mental health problems."

Referring in his opinion to some of the details in the confession, Smith asks, as the prosecutor had asked the trial jury, how a man whose innocence has been established could have known some of these facts he presented during police questioning.

"It is hard," Smith writes, "to imagine an answer other than that he learned them from the police. ... The police took advantage of Warney's mental frailties to manipulate him into giving a confession that contained seemingly powerful evidence corroborating its truthfulness -- when, in fact, the police knew, the corroboration was worthless. ... This sort of police conduct, if proved at trial would be sufficient to show that Warney 'did not by has own conduct cause or bring about his conviction.'''

Answering a question asked at oral argument, Smith said a false confession that was not coerced could be a barrier to compensation from the state. But, he wrote, "A confession cannot fairly be called 'uncoerced' that results from the sort of calculated manipulation that appears to be present here -- even if the police did not actually beat or torture the confessor, or threaten to do so. "

As clear as he appears to be about Warney, Smith is at least equally concerned with discouraging "frivolous claims." "This case is easy, because this claimant appears ... to have an exceptionally strong case," Smith wrote. "Our decision today should not be read as implying that any claimant can, by skillful pleading, get a significantly weaker case past a motion to dismiss."

According to Neufeld approximately 25 percent of those individuals who have been exonerated had confessed to crimes they did not commit. This week, Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 15 years in prison after being convicted of raping, beating and strangling a high school classmate, but was later exonerated by DNA testing, settled his federal civil rights case against Westchester County for $6.5 million.

While it is not every day that cases such as Warney's and Deskovic's are brought, Neufeld hopes that the opinion in Warney's suit will have an effect on other local cases and in other states. That is, while false confessions are not uncommon, they should not generally prevent an exonerated individual from claiming compensation. Certainly as Smith wrote, the wrongfully convicted should have their day in court and an opportunity to establish their claim.

Other claims, though, will wait for another day. The next question would involve whether there will be a trial in Warney v State of New York. According to Peter Neufeld, there have been no discussions with the state about how the case will proceed now that the Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal. It is likely the two sides will reach a monetary settlement.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice

Prosecutors Grapple with Marijuana Arrests

Several years ago in a private conversation, a Fire Department paramedic explained the tension between the New York Police Department and EMS when their units respond to situations involving illicit drugs. Police officers, he said, view drug use as a criminal matter. Paramedics and other medical workers see it as a public health concern.

For years, criminal justice reform advocates have said that non-violent drug offenders should be referred to treatment rather than sent to jail. In 2009, the state scrapped many of its Rockefeller drug laws, a landmark victory for these advocates in the state. But whether the state is moving to view the non-violent drug user as a victim of an epidemic rather than someone who belongs in a holding cell remains to be seen.

More specifically, the state has not addressed how to deal with a person found with marijuana who doesn't need either incarceration or treatment.

Limited Options

So far, implementing Rockefeller drug law reform has been messy and costly, said Glenn Martin, the vice president of development and public affairs at the Fortune Society.

Although prosecutors push more first-time drug offenders toward drug-treatment, most of them wind up in 18-month, in-patient programs. The justice system by and large ignores other types of clinical care, and the state offers few alternatives to incarceration. In particular, Martin noted, treatment has largely been an option for first-time offenders, rather than those who relapse.

"It sounds good to a prosecutor, but who says that this cookie-cutter approach makes sense? It doesn't,” he said in a phone interview. While many prosecutors support the idea of treatment over jail, Martin says they are not usually experts on drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

"New York City has the most robust alternative to incarceration communities," Martin said. But, he added, "None of those resources are utilized."

On paper, the state's drug enforcement methods appear kinder and gentler. But the reforms, Martin argues, have not met the goal of reducing the money spent on tackling drug use and actually rehabilitating people.

"Not a single person has completed treatment," he said. "You can't point to success stories yet?"

Getting Arrested

The treatment debate does not address the issue of why so many people are arrested in the first place. Speaking at a recent panel discussion at the New School, Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan said his team of prosecutors “have great discretion” when it comes to diverting alleged marijuana offenders into treatment programs. But he also said many people caught on misdemeanor drug offenses are brought in under questionable circumstances -- like through a stop-and-frisk, which forces individuals to empty their pockets. (Note: it is not a criminal offense to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana, but it is a misdemeanor to have it out in public).

Donovan said that in those instances, prosecutors can move to not press the case. "We got real smart with that," he said. When asked how many cases it has put aside due to improper searches, Donovan said: "I don't think we’ve ever broken that down."

Simply being caught up in a criminal proceeding, however briefly, can create problems, even if the case is dropped or the young drug user is sent to treatment, said Noah Kass, the clinical director at Realization Center, an outpatient treatment program in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

"The trauma of being arrested for a crime you didn't commit is significant for an adolescent. The trauma of being arrested for a crime that's unwarranted could be astronomical," he said. "It sets them on a road. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

User vs. Abuser

Kass said he often finds himself in situations placing young people -- particularly blacks and Latinos -- caught with marijuana into treatment that they don't really need.

"So I will stick a kid who is 15 or 16 who grew up in the South Bronx and was caught with a very little amount of marijuana, and I will stick him in a group with a kid who goes to a private school on the Upper East Side who is suffering from so many more drug issues that comparing them could be futile," he said.

Kass recalled that one of his workers in such a situation worried that the rich kid would learn the "drug game" from the Bronx youth. Kass said, "I was like, 'It is so the other way around.'"

By placing youth in treatment when they do not have real drug problems, the criminal justice system is telling them that they do. This can greatly affects a person's psyche, and is an all too common reality for black and Latino youths in the city, Kass said.

"They say, 'Yes, I’m going to self help meetings. Yes, I'm working on building a solid sober support network,'" he said. "We become sort of complicit in this lie."

If Kass is correct, then the mental health impact on New Yorkers caught with marijuana, arguably the least dangerous of illegal drugs, could be enormous. Last year , the city arrested 50,383 people for possessing small amounts of marijuana. according to a recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance. Gabriel Sayegh, director of the New York office of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the number of marijuana arrests under the Bloomberg administration dwarfs the number of such arrests under Mayors Ed Koch, Davd Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani combined.

Nonetheless, advocates still believe some progress has been made toward treating drugs as a health concern more than a crime problem.

"I think the movement is very marginal, but I think about how long it took to get here," Martin said. "I find myself in rooms with prosecutors now who are comfortable talking about diversion. I think that's a step forward."

Slicing the Fire Department

fire department
Photo (cc) xiaming

In 2009, it was 16.

In both 2010 and 2011, the magic number grew to 20.

For the past three years, the Bloomberg administration has threatened to throw dozens of fire companies into the furnace. Faced with billion-dollar deficits, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly attempted to hack away at the Fire Department's ranks for the sake of fiscal prudence and cost cutting.

Now that Bloomberg wants to reduce the number of companies for the seventh time in his tenure, insiders wonder whether his intention is to save cash or shrink the size of the department altogether.

"When [Bloomberg] first came in he said famously, 'Everyone had to do more with less well,'" said Martin Steadman, the research director for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "The Fire Department has had to do far more with far less."

Only six companies have actually closed since Bloomberg took the reins at City Hall in 2002. In his preliminary budget proposal released in February, Bloomberg threatened to add 20 more to that list. The mayor also recently reduced the number of firefighters from five to four on 60 of the city's nearly 200 engine companies -- otherwise known as the team of firefighters on one truck.

Union leaders are preparing to fight the closures and the staff reductions with all hands. But experts in the field think Bloomberg should take advantage of the city's fiscal woes. Bloomberg, they say, should examine the entire Fire Department, weed out waste and reorganize companies so firehouses are in neighborhoods where they are needed the most.

"Every time you have a problem, you talk about cutting a firehouse, it's not really good management," said Thomas Von Essen, the fire commissioner in the Giuliani administration. "I don’t think the Bloomberg administration has a clue of the inside workings of the Fire Department."

Slashing Services

Representatives from fire officers and firefighters' unions will tell you they had their busiest year ever in 2010. The department responded to more than 507,430 incidents -- a record-breaker and a 7.3 percent increase over 2009.

When asked about staff reductions, union officials point to a five-alarm fire in Flatbush last month, which killed one person and injured dozens of firefighters. Just two weeks earlier, a staffing reduction on engines took effect (the mayor denies the fire had anything to do with the staff cuts).

"It's truly a game of Russian roulette," said Tom Butler, a spokesperson for the Uniformed Firefighters Association. "The purpose of government is to protect the citizenry. If it cant keep people safe, than what's the purpose of it?"

Unlike the Police Department, which has been held relatively harmless during the administration's nine rounds of budget cuts, the Fire Department has been repeatedly targeted.

Last year, Bloomberg threatened to shutter 20 companies at night. At the time, when asked if he thought the Fire Department was too large, the mayor said: "The way the Fire Department works is fundamentally if you want to cut back, you have to close companies. It's one of these things, you can never have too much, but I can tell you we can't afford much."

In an emailed statement, Marc LaVorgna, a Bloomberg spokesperson, denies the mayor's intention is to shrink the Fire Department.

"The reason for the proposed cuts at FDNY is because every agency in the city -- police, education, transportation and on down the list -- has to make reductions because we simply don’t have the resources, primarily because of the growth in costs like pensions, which are eating into the dollars we want to use to provide services to New Yorkers," LaVorgna said. "The Fire Department is no different and that is why reductions have been proposed."

Not since the 1970s has the department been under such heavy fire. Then the city shuttered 16 fire companies and lost approximately 2,000 firefighters.

So far the cuts in mass have never materialized. For the past three years in a row, the City Council has used its discretionary funding to stave off company closures.

That doesn't mean the same thing will happen this year. The city is facing closures at 105 senior centers and layoffs of thousands of teachers.

The fire commissioner, Salvatore Cassano, a lifelong firefighter who has held every position in the ranks, has expressed concern over the company closures.

"It would impact our operations severely," said Cassano last month of the proposed company closures. "Our response times would increase. I would be concerned if we had to do it."

The Fire Department is scheduled to testify at the City Council today on the mayor's latest budget proposal.

Incidents on the Rise

Even though the department had a record year in 2010, the type of calls it responds to has changed drastically over the years.

In the 1970s, the men in yellow and black were kept busy hosing down blazes in the Bronx (the department responded to 56,810 structural fires in 1976). Last year, the department responded to less than half that number. In 1976, FDNY rushed to more than 96,000 non-structural fires. Last year, it went to just over 18,000.

On the other hand, the number of medical emergencies the department responds to has skyrocketed. Since 1993, the department has sent an engine to serious medical emergencies, including a heart attack or choking, because engines have quicker response times than emergency service vehicles. Last year, they went to more than 218,600 emergencies.

So while structural fires have decreased over the years, other emergency responses have gone up.

At the same time, the department has been able to shorten its response time. To all emergencies, except false alarms, the city's response time has fallen since Bloomberg took office. For structural fires, it is at a record low of 4 minutes and 1 second.

Given the changes in response, fire safety experts are encouraging the department to examine where its resources are needed most. Instead of shuttering fire companies, Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay School of Criminal Justice, has urged the city to look at response times neighborhood by neighborhood. Some neighborhoods, Corbett said, may not need a firehouse because the response time is low, while others might be in need of resources.

"Just starting off and saying we got to close 20, I don’t think anyone is ever going to argue it's going to have a positive impact," said Corbett. "You can't use the argument fire incidents are down and our response time is X. What kind of fires are we having? Perhaps the administration would like it to be simple, but it's not."

A department spokesperson said the FDNY monitors its resources constantly.

Calculating Cuts

Since Bloomberg's first budget proposal in 2002, the Fire Department's budget has increased by more than 50 percent. During that same time period, the Police Department's budget -- which has always been almost three times the size of the FDNY's -- grew by 37 percent.

The Department of Sanitation's budget has increased by 32 percent between 2002 and the projected cost in fiscal year 2012. Meanwhile, the Department for the Aging's budget has been cut by 6 percent between fiscal year 2002 and next year's budget proposal.

Bloomberg administration officials attribute increased cost in uniformed services to the rising cost of health care and pension benefits. Those services are taking a larger portion of the budget and forcing the city to reduce services.

At the same time, a discrimination lawsuit has prevented the city from hiring new firefighters. According to the department, they have lost about 500 positions.

Beyond company closures, cuts to engine company staffing have caused ire among city fire unions.

Both the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association are appealing the mayor's staff reductions to the city Board of Collective Bargaining -- an independent agency that oversees labor negotiations. The unions hope the board will grant them a hearing and eventually determine the staff reductions pose a safety hazard.

But budget slashing doesn't end there.

To stave off larger company closures, the city has proposed to charge motorists if they are involved in a vehicle accident and the Fire Department responds. The administration also wants to remove emergency call boxes from street corners. Advocates successfully challenged the call box move in court.

Officials at the City Council have spoken out against the politically unpopular measures.

"There is no area in the city of New York that wants to see their fire protection decrease -- not at a time when our Fire Department is responding to more emergencies than every before," said Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, the chair of the council's Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, outside of City Hall Thursday.

Experts say the city has other options. In New Jersey, said Corbett, every business that hosts a certain population, like a hospital or day care, has to pay a hazard fee. Corbett said the program raised $20 million in New Jersey.

At the City Council, which has to approve a final budget, Crowley said they are not willing to sustain any cuts to the FDNY. She said the council will push the administration to weed out unnecessary overtime costs -- costs she said are double the $55 million the city would save closing companies.

When asked if the council could hold the Fire Department harmless, Crowley was confident it could.

"Absolutely," she said. "It’s a high priority."

Court Considers Who's Responsible for False Confession

false confession
Photo (cc) mwalshhme

What happens when a man says he's guilty of murder, but state-of-the-art-science says he's not?

That is the question the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, will soon answer in the case of Douglas Warney v. State of New York, which began in 1996 as People of the State of New York v. Douglas Warney.

Warney, while in police custody in Rochester, signed a detailed two-page confession and was convicted, after trial, of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison and served nine years before he was exonerated by DNA testing -- testing that prosecutors had vigorously opposed. Douglas Warney was innocent.

Once released from prison, Warney sued for compensation under New York's wrongful conviction statute. But at the earliest possible stage of litigation, the Court of Claims, where lawsuits against the state are filed, dismissed his case. The judge cited the statutory exemption of state liability and said the claimant, Warney, "through his own conduct, brought about his own conviction."

Police Pressure?

Warney's case is not an isolated instance. Studies have found that many individuals falsely confess to a crime, often because of police trickery or their own vulnerability. A number of these people have later been exonerated by DNA tests. Peter Neufeld, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project of Benjamin Cardozo School of Law who now represents Warney, says Warney is of below average intellect (IQ 68) and at the time of his interrogation and "confession," also was suffering from dementia.

douglas warney
Photo: the Innocence Project
Douglas Warney

A study by the New York State Bar Association found that wrongful convictions are often the result of false confessions. The Innocence Project put the number at approximately 25 percent.

That police misconduct may have elicited Warney's confession has not helped him despite the universal acknowledgment of his innocence. (The DNA at the scene matched that of another man who is already serving a life sentence for another murder, has now confessed to the murder.) According to the decision of Judge Renee Forgensi Minarik of the Court of Claims, the fact that Warney confessed overrides why he confessed.

It is standard police procedure to withhold certain details about a crime. If someone then reveals he or she has knowledge of those details, the police reason that person must be the perpetrator, and the confession is deemed reliable. In Warney's case, said Neufeld, who was not involved in Warney's original trial, "The police and prosecutor kept emphasizing that because there were 11 details that only the police -- and Warney -- knew," Warney had to be the killer. The problem, Neufeld said is "the police broke a cardinal rule," by telling Warney the details that he then provided them.

At the February argument before the Court of Appeals in Albany, Judge Robert Smith, characterized this type of police conduct as "manipulation" more than coercion, describing the actions of a suspect such as Warney, as "tell me what you want me to say and I'll say it."

For and Against Compensation

Arguing for the state, attorney Alison Natnah told New York's highest court that Warney had "no entitlement to compensation" for his years spent in prison since he should have been able to foresee that his own admission and self-incrimination, which she called "voluntary," would lead to his conviction. In other words, it was Warney and not the government who was responsible for his conviction and the years of incarceration. That it is wrongful and unjust -- not just a mistake -- is insufficient to allow the claim to proceed argued Natnah, who has recently been recommended by Sen. Charles Schumer for a federal judgeship.

Given that he has been ruled out as the perpetrator, "How could Warney have known that the weapon was a 13-inch serrated knife, and that a victim was stabbed 15 times?" Smith wanted to know. He prodded the prosecutor to tell the court how Warney could have had these facts -- unless the police told him. Natnah was unable to provide an explanation that seemed to satisfy Smith. Meantime, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked how Warney's "confession" could be considered credible if "90 percent of what he knew was planted in his mind by the police," especially when one week earlier the police had taken Warney to a psychiatric hospital.

Neufeld asked the bench to reinstate Warney's claims and define "misconduct," in accord with the legislature’s intention that an unjust conviction should lead to compensation. Warney's repeating what police fed to him cannot be the misconduct the legislature referred to in carving out an exception to the wrongful conviction statute, Neufeld argued.

In what he described as "a really important case," Neufeld also asked the court to clarify that the confession itself would have to have been the "proximate" cause of the conviction, or the very thing that caused the wrongful conviction. Pressed as to whether there could ever be a false confession that would constitute misconduct, Neufeld hypothesized "perhaps a man who intentionally, falsely confessed in order to take the blame for his wife's crime."

While it may seem illogical if not incredible that an innocent person would admit committing a serious violent crime, false confessions -- admissions of guilt made despite innocence -- occur when suspects are fed the answers. They may believe, or police may suggest, that they don't need a lawyer if they are innocent and have nothing to conceal, and that asking for a lawyer will make them look guilty. The issue of wrongful convictions, including those based on false confessions has led Lippman to form a task force to analyze and identify ways to reduce the incidence of innocent people spending years behind bars.

Warney was originally convicted of murder in the first degree at a time when he could have been subject to capital punishment. He would have been unjustly convicted and also could have been executed. The DNA testing led to the true perpetrator who has since stated that he acted alone and did not know Douglas Warney.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice

Bloomberg Releases Preliminary Budget, Blames Albany

Photo (cc) Edward Reed

This time he means business.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a $65.6 billion budget Thursday, the 10th of his tenure, which reduces spending by 0.4 percent and threatens for the third year in a row to lay off thousands of teachers. Bloomberg said the city was slammed by cuts from Albany and the federal government, leaving the administration with little choice but to cut back in classrooms. As a result, the administration proposed to reduce the teacher headcount by 6,166 -- 4,666 through layoffs.

"I don't see either Washington or Albany approaching fiscal realities the way we do in our city," said Bloomberg just before delivering his semi-annual budget presentation via PowerPoint. "Government's job is not to employ as many people as possible or spend as much of the taxpayers' money as possible."

With state and federal cuts, the city faces a $4.6 billion deficit. The mayor did say he sympathized with the state's dire fiscal straits, but asked for fairness from Albany.

The mayor's budget proposal does not offer many more spending slashes than the fiscal plan the mayor unveiled in November. Some of the more severe proposed cuts, including the closure of at least 100 senior centers, come from proposals in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget and from funding reductions in Washington, Bloomberg said. A federal cut could slash the number of day care slots for lower income families by more than 16,600, officials said, 16 percent of the total available.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the mayor's preliminary proposal would reduce the city workforce by 8,300 positions -- more than 5,000 of them through layoffs.

The mayor has proposed massive layoffs before, but few have actually materialized -- none have occurred in the classroom. Advocates questioned what made this year any different.

“Given the city’s growing revenues, along with the governor's clear statement that the state budget should not require local layoffs, the mayor’s insistence on teacher layoffs becomes more and more bizarre," said Michael Mulgrew, the head of the teachers union, in an e-mailed statement.

As the mayor painted a gloomy fiscal portrait from City Hall's blue room, some on the sidelines, like Mulgrew, looked on with skepticism. After the mayor announced layoffs, he also said the city had received $2 billion in unexpected revenue, which would soften the blow from state and federal cuts.

"We are in a much stronger position than most," Bloomberg explained.

But officials in the Bloomberg administration and at the City Council, who will negotiate the fiscal year 2012 budget with the mayor over the next four months, said, whatever has happened in previous years, this time it is serious.

Tackling Teacher Cuts

This fiscal year the city will receive nearly $8.2 billion in federal aid. For fiscal year 2012, which starts in July, the city will see a 27.6 percent cut, down to $5.9 billion.

On top of that, the governor's budget proposal would affect $2.1 billion worth of city services.

The mayor's preliminary proposal assumes the city will be able to successfully negotiate in Albany for an additional $600 million. Some of that will come from an infusion of education and local aid funding, while part will come from rescinding part of uniformed workers' so-called "holiday bonuses." Reducing the $12,000 a year salary supplement would require the state legislature's approval.

Should the city fail to get this funding, Bloomberg said, the administration would have to go through another round of cuts. Since the recession, the administration has gone through nine rounds of slashes and cut a total of $5.2 billion in city services.

The administration, along with Council Speaker Christine Quinn, refuses to raise taxes.

All of this combined makes these cuts, particularly to teachers, more real this year, officials said.

"I think it's real based on the numbers," said Councilmember Robert Jackson, the chair of the council's Education Committee. "I don't blame him," he said of the mayor.

Others agree.

"He's right," said Citizens Budget Commission President Carol Kellermann. "The numbers are what they are. We've been using federal aid for education. We probably should have made some of these cuts sooner. Now we're kind of at a cliff."

Should the cuts to education occur, it's unclear how devastating they would be. The Bloomberg administration has been pushing Albany to repeal a state rule that requires the city to lay off teachers based on seniority. Getting rid of the restriction has been a key element of Bloomberg's agenda this year, and education officials say it is even more necessary since the city faces state education aid slashes.

"How it impacts the size of the classroom I don’t know for a fact," said Schools Chancellor Cathie Black at City Hall Thursday on the budget cut. "But it certainly has the possibility of raising class size."

Black said there are groups of teachers the administration would try to cut first, including teachers in a reserve pool who are awaiting a classroom assignment. Black said the education department would also look into laying off teachers who are deemed "unsatisfactory."

"I still think we will be dealing with teacher layoffs," Black said.

Cuts Beyond the Classroom

Outside of the schoolhouse wall, officials and advocates fear cuts that have reemerged from the mayor's fiscal plan in November.

Once again, the mayor has proposed to cut 20 fire companies. For the past two years, the City Council has come to the rescue of the Fire Department, restoring funds for companies the mayor plans to slash. This year, with so many teachers on the line, they may not be able to do that.

"It would impact our operations severely," said Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano of the proposed company closures. "Our response times would increase. I would be concerned if we had to do it."

In a prepared statement, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said she had "serious concerns" about teacher layoffs, the reduction of childcare slots and the fire company closures. The speaker also identified a $27 million state cut to senior centers as a council concern.

Department for the Aging Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli said that cut would close nearly half of the city's 256 senior centers.

"It's brutal," said the Barrios-Paoli. "To think [seniors] are going to walk 20 more blocks to go to another senior center, it's not going to happen. They are going to go hungry."

With state cuts, the city will also see a reduction in funding to its adult homeless shelters. The state also plans to eliminate rental support funding for former shelter residents.

Additional Revenue

The governor, mayor and the speaker of the City Council have said they would not raise taxes.

On Thursday some council members and advocates said the city should lobby Albany to extend the millionaire's tax, a personal income tax surcharge on the state's wealthiest, which is set to expire in December. Officials said that could bring in an additional $4 billion in Albany.

"At a minimum, we must continue the existing New York State [personal income tax] surcharge on high-income households," read a statement from the council's Progressive Caucus. "The surcharge is already in place, generating over $4 billion annually, with no evidence that it has driven wealthy New Yorkers to leave the state. In a time of crisis, it would be unconscionable to cut lifelines for our schools, our seniors, and our most vulnerable while waving bon voyage to billions of dollars in revenue that we are already collecting."

Earlier this year, Cuomo said he would let the tax surcharge die. Bloomberg has been extremely vocal against the millionaire's tax, contending it would result in affluent taxpayers fleeing the city.

City Bail System Punishes the Poor, Report Finds

bail bondsman

Human Rights Watch, known internationally for fighting degradation and institutional suffering among the people of Africa, Indonesia, Latin America and other developing areas of the world, has turned its sights to New York City. The organization has issued a report -- to be made public today -- on bail and arraignment practices in our Criminal Courts. Following a two-year study, the report concludes that bail results in the incarceration of poor people, almost all of whom are black or Hispanic and are charged with non-violent crimes.

Human Rights Watch has found that every year the bail system in New York City penalizes thousands of poor people with pre-trial detention when they are arrested and charged with minor crimes. In these instances, the judges often require a fairly small amount of bail money. But that often is still more than the individuals and families involved can afford. (Bail is intended to insure that defendants return to court for trial after their arrest or risk losing the money they have posted.)

The Price of Freedom

"The Price of Freedom: Bail and Pretrial Detention of Low-Income Non-felony Defendants in New York City," reports that 87 percent of defendants whose bail was set at $1,000 or less were jailed following their first court appearance for arraignment and remained incarcerated for an average of almost 16 days. Their crimes: shoplifting, prostitution, turnstile jumping, marijuana, possession of small quantities of drugs, trespassing. None were violent, and none involved weapons. In effect, these people served their sentences before ever been tried, much less convicted, since in many of the cases, the sentences eventually imposed would likely have been less than the time they spent at Rikers Island. These non-felony defendants awaiting trial constitute approximately one quarter of the population on Rikers.

The Human Rights Watch analysis found that the city could have saved $42 million in 2008 if the 16,649 non-felony defendants arrested that year who were unable to make bail of $1,000 or less had been released on their own recognizance or under some other alternative to incarceration. The report urges the city to create such an alternative. The cost of keeping a person confined in a city jail is approximately $73,000 a year.

According to Jamie Fellner, senior counsel at the U.S. Program at Human Watch who conducted the study and wrote the report, "Bail punishes the poor because they cannot afford to buy their pretrial freedom." Fellner found that judges sitting in Criminal Court tend to set bail at amounts that are unaffordable for indigent defendants.

"The pretrial incarceration of persons presumed innocent of minor crimes is a disproportionate and needless curtailment of liberty that is difficult to square with fundamental notions of fairness," Fellner's report concludes.

While the report did not provide a breakdown for the races of people affected by the bail policy it noted, "Although blacks and Hispanics combined constitute only 51 percent of New York City's population population, aggressive law enforcement in minority neighborhoods has led to them comprising 82.4 percent of all arrestees and a similar percentage of all criminal defendants."

It also cites city Department of Correction figures that 88 percent of people held on bail of $1,000 or less are black and Hispanic.

Plead Guilty and Walk

The only way a defendant charged with a misdemeanor or violation such as disorderly conduct can get out of jail quickly when a judge sets bail he or she cannot raise, is to plead guilty. Pleading guilty can mean walking out of the courthouse -- particularly if this is the first person's first arrest -- since many of the minor offenses do not carry any jail time, and the defendant has already served 24 hours by the time he or she appears in court. Others pleading guilty may get an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, meaning if they don't get arrested again within the next six months their case is automatically dismissed and sealed or they may receive a conditional or unconditional discharge.

Meanwhile, the defendant who asserts the presumption of innocence remains behind bars. Of the 19,137 non-felony defendants arrested in 2008 whose bail was $1,000 or less, 87 percent were not able to post that and had no one else who could. This helps explain why 99.6 percent of the convictions for misdemeanors are by guilty plea.

Fixing the System

The report posits, "Judges may intentionally set bail at a level beyond a defendant's means when they believe the defendant will not return to court if released. Human Rights Watch found, however, that "failure to appear is not a widespread problem."

To some extent, the report is critical of judges for failing to use alternative means of assuring that an individual will return. The statutory alternative most readily available -- and which the report encourages -- is unsecured appearance bonds. These require that the defendant or someone else, such as a parent, signs a promise to pay a certain sum of money in the event that the defendant does abscond. This, often used in federal courts, avoids the need for money upfront. Many judges are unfamiliar with the possibilities and also are overwhelmed with the number of cases during an arraignment session. The unsecured bond does entail some extra paperwork for the clerical staff, but is till one of the recommendations in the report.

The second recommendation is for the city to develop pretrial supervised release programs that presumably would monitor defendants or require them to report in. The cost of such programs would, Human Rights Watch concludes, be far less than the cost of incarceration. And they would not infringe on the constitutional presumption of innocence by permitting pretrial detention based on poverty.

Human Rights Watch also recommends that judges set bail in accord with defendant's actual financial circumstances.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court justice. She was interviewed for the Human Right Watch report and read it before its publication.

Cuomo Could Shrink the Prison System His Father Built

Photo by Rupert Ganzer
In one of his first acts as governor, Mario Cuomo helped negotiate an end to a hostage crisis at Sing Sing prison. Recently his son Andrew went to the prison to make a statement on criminal justice issues.

Gov. Mario Cuomo oversaw the largest expansion of the prison system in the state’s history. It is a legacy that Cuomo has said that he regrets. Now prison beds sit empty, as New York State, which faces a $9 billion budget deficit, continues to spend millions of dollars a year to staff and operate half-vacant human warehouses.

Enter the son, Andrew Cuomo. One of his first acts after winning election was to tour Sing Sing Prison, the site of his father’s first crisis as governor. Shortly after he was elected, Mario Cuomo faced a riot during which 17 guards were held hostage.

andrew cuomo

The elder Cuomo was deeply involved in the negotiations, and the hostages were eventually released unharmed. Robert Gangi, head of the Correctional Association of New York, a progressive group that advocates criminal justice reform, said he thinks Sing Sing may turn out to be the site of Andrew Cuomo’s defining moments, too, and could offer the son a chance to redeem his father.

At Sing Sing earlier this month, the governor-elect delivered a statement that was measured but firm.

"We are locking up fewer people. But then you need fewer facilities. And the shrinkage of that system is going to be something that has to be thought through and managed," Cuomo said.

Gangi found Cuomo's message encouraging "For better or worse, that part of Mario Cuomo’s legacy is that more prisons opened under him than any other governor. He has spoken out since and said that it is something he regrets. Perhaps Andrew can roll back the prisons and atone for his father's mistakes," said Gangi.

Cuomo’s stance on prison closures, as well as statements in policy books prepared during the campaign and his record of opposing the state's strict Rockefeller drug laws, give hope to progressive advocates who want to see Cuomo improve the physical and mental health care provided to prisoners, increase alternative sentencing and provide treatment centers for subtance abusers. But they have also been given pause by the makeup of the new governor’s public safety transition team with its heavy representation of prosecutors and people in law enforcement.

Managing the Transition

Cuomo has appointed former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King and former deputy secretary for public safety Michael Balboni, a Republican who served in the Spitzer and Paterson administrations, to his team. (The rest of the members can be found here.)

Some say transition teams are fairly symbolic -- they offer newly elected officials an opportunity to appear to give voices to their detractors as well as supporters, while their inner circles make the real policy decisions. But transition teams do have tremendous power in recommending staffers to work in important agencies. Those staffers can set the tone for an agency.

Terry O’Neill, the head of the Constantine Institute, an Albany-based organization that studies public safety issues, said he is concerned that Cuomo has tapped people from the old guard who advocate the same old strategies.

"When I look at the top of the list, I see people who have a very uninspired public safety philosophy," said O’Neill. O’Neill says the committee lacks anyone who represents “community policing, community crime prevention, correctional alternatives and inmate re-entry programs. All of these things are important to people who live in high-crime communities," said O’Neill.

O’Neill sees Giuliani and Kelly as advocates of old ideas. "They are both stuck on the statistics-driven enforcement CompStat tactic that began as a simple management and accountability tool under Bill Bratton, Rudy's first police commissioner," O'Neill said. "This concept has become entrenched and rigid in the NYPD and has begun to result in serious pressure on precinct commanders to do what they have to do to maintain the illusion of ever downward-trending crime statistics. Neither of them would be likely to promote people who would give us the kind of state-of-the-art strategies that Bratton went on to pioneer with the LAPD."

Cuomo has been praised for including detractors and critics on his transition teams. Former state comptroller Carl McCall, the man who he ran against for governor before withdrawing in 2002, is a co-chair of the team. Giuliani has criticized Cuomo in the past and is seen as a political rival. Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Amsterdam News, who has been very critical of Cuomo’s relationship with the minority community, was named to his committee on economic development and labor. In fact, her paper differed sharply with the Giuliani appointment.

It recently ran an article titled "Giulani and Cuomo: Diversity With Lack of Respect" that questioned Cuomo’s commitment to diversity, given his choice of Giuliani to co-chair the public safety committee. Giuliani, the paper wrote, "was infamous for his lack of diversity in his administration and for failing to meet with black leadership."

Gangi said that he is unsure how to take the makeup of Cuomo’s public safety transition team, adding, "It could be that part of the group could focus on terrorism issues, not on prisons and law enforcement."

Policy Statements

Greg Berman of the Center for Court Innovation said he isn’t concerned by the transition team. "I would focus less on who is on the team and more on what he has written in his policy books," said Berman. In those volumes, Cuomo has said that he is committed to investing in programs for recently released prisoners, combating gun violence across New York and reorganizing the juvenile justice system.

A part of his "Plan to Revitalize Cities Across New York" focuses on reentry programs for offenders.

It would require state agencies to establish a unified set of goals and tools to assess progress toward training prison inmates for jobs and on matching inmates with stable housing prior to release. The state, the plan continues, should have programs to ensure inmates have all the tools they need to make a successful transition into regular life.

Cuomo has also promised to combat gun violence across the state by "making microstamping mandatory." Microstamping is a technology that can be installed on handguns that leaves individual markings on each bullet fired to make it easier to trace shells back to the gun that fired them. Gun rights advocates say the technology is unproven and the cost would be prohibitive for gun owners.

Cuomo also backs the "Ceasefire" initiative a program that has law enforcement officials, community representatives and social service providers work directly with gangs to reduce violence.

Beyond that, Gangi said, Cuomo's stop at Sing Sing sent a powerful message that he is considering how to transform the prison system. “He spoke about downsizing the prison system, closing institutions that no longer serve a function, and he sent a message to unions that have pressed so hard against governors who have tried to close prisons in the past,” Gangi said.

On top of that, Gangi points out that Cuomo was integral in advocating the reform of the Rockefeller drug laws.

"He took a very progressive position and displayed a nuanced view of the justice system and the particular injustices caused by these mandatory sentences," said Gangi.

The Cuomo administration also will have its hands full sorting out the state’s juvenile justice system. A federal report found New York’s juvenile justice system to be violent and dysfunctional. Studies have found that guards routinely use violence to punish and control youth and that detainees do not receive adequate therapy.

The head of the Office of Children and Family Services, Gladys Carrion, has been working on alternative sentencing for juveniles and keeping youthful offenders in their own communities.Advocates for young offenders support her efforts. Carrion’s work has reduced the number of juveniles detained in the state system and has closed 13 facilities.

Cuomo will have to decide whether to continue to support Carrion’s strategy without her when her term ends in December. Meanwhile, public employee unions have pushed back against the changes -- saying that it is unsafe to keep some of the more violent offenders in their communities and that upstate communities rely on jobs provided by the centers.

Steve Madarasz of the Civil Service Employees Unions says he and his union can’t wait for Cuomo to replace Carrion. "This situation is just a mess," said Madarasz. "Carrion has burned all her bridges. She has just gone about dismantling this system and is sending these youth back to their communities with no protections. In our opinion she can’t be replaced fast enough."

One particularly notorious facility, the Tryon Residential Center in Johnstown, is empty, and yet about 60 of the staff still report to work because of the law that requires one-year notification before closure.

Gangi said he would like to see that requirement reduced from 12 months to 3 months so prisons and detention facilities can be closed more quickly, thereby allowing the state to benefit from the savings much sooner.

Cuomo’s "Plan to Revitalize Cities Across New York" calls for the state to "establish an Innovation Accountability Board to oversee the state’s juvenile system and look for alternatives to detention, imprison only those juveniles who are a risk to public safety, improve the conditions of confinement, and look to merge and reorganize juvenile justice detention centers."

When asked what he expected from Cuomo, who has vowed to battle unions on cuts and has expressed interest in trimming understaffed prisons, Madarasz was uncertain. "We have no idea what to expect until he is actually in office," he said.

The legislature and governor also will confront the question of whether to expand the New York's DNA database. Outgoing Gov. David Paterson has pressed to expand the scope of the database to include all penal code violations -- not just felonies and more serious misdemeanors. There have been concerns about the reliability of DNA evidence and how it is used in solving crimes. Republican attorney general candidate Dan Donovan and Cuomo’s purported favorite Democratic attorney general hopeful, Kathleen Rice, both supported Paterson’s bill.

When asked earlier this year which legislation he supported a spokesman for attorney general-elect Eric Schneiderman said, "The senator supports both pieces of the puzzle."

By Talking about Sexual Violence, Grassroots Effort Aims to Prevent It

Photo by Ken Lu

Correction: This article originally overstated the effects on budget cuts on treatment and prevention programs. The article now has been corrected.

It took Harriet Lessel a over a decade of lecturing high school students about sexual violence to realize that, while her work was important, it was "barely a drop in the bucket."

"We have been raising awareness about sexual violence this way since the 1970s and sexual violence rates have remained pretty much the same," said Lessel, the executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. "It was clear that a new approach was needed. ... We needed something deeper than these one- or three-off lectures at high schools."

Indeed, while crime rates have fallen over the past two decades in New York City, sexual violence remains such a pervasive public health issue in the city that advocates have begun to call it a "silent epidemic."

Despite this, in June the New York City Council unexpectedly voted to cut all funding -- over $300,000 annually -- for city programs that help victims of sexual assault, forcing rape crisis centers to scale back programs they consider vital. For example, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center had to cut back its program giving free treatment to male victims of sexual assault, the only such program in New York, and the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Bronx was forced to downsize its free and long-term child sexual abuse treatment and prevention program.

The Mother of Invention

The funding problems and the persistence of sexual violence have caused the city's rape crisis centers to try a new approach. They are banding together to launch Project Envision, an unprecedented citywide intititive that seeks to prevent sexual violence before it happens by attacking its root causes. Spearheaded by the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault, the effort is the first in the U.S. in which a city's rape crisis centers join forces to focus not only on treatment, but grassroots activism to affect social change.

The project approaches sexual assault as a public health issue with clear causes that can be isolated and controlled.

"We often use the analogy of rescuing people from drowning in a river. Up until now, we just stood on the banks and threw lines to people who were already in trouble," said Cathleen Cogswell, an employee at the alliance. "Now we are walking upriver to find and deal with what is causing this in the first place."

The Level of Violence

A 2008 study by Columbia University and the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault found that 16 percent of New York high school students have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. For female adolescents in the city, the rate rises to 25 percent. Youth in neighborhoods such as Central Harlem and Brownsville, Brooklyn experience even higher rates, with 60 of 98 participants in a study of severely distressed households in these areas having experienced forced sexual contact by the age of 13.

The cost to victims of sexual violence is tremendous. Most suffer depression and post-traumatic stress disorder directly resulting from an encounter. Although law enforcement could vastly improve its handling of sexual assault, it is one of the most difficult crimes to crack down on, as the vast majority of sexual assaults are never reported to authorities, and only a tiny fraction of rapists are ever charged for their crimes. Contrary to common belief, most victims of sexual assault are in some way acquainted with their assailant.

Starting the Conversation

Borrowing strategies from prevention efforts like the anti-smoking campaign and clean-drinking water initiatives, Project Envision seeks to correct social norms that enable rape and other forms of sexual violence by influencing discourse on the community level.

"The idea that rape is inevitable, the continued blaming of victims and the fact that people are afraid to talk about it -- this all needs to change before we can make real headway here," Billye Jones-Mulraine, a member of Project Envision’s South Bronx community effort, said. "It is an issue that still remains very much in the shadows. The fact that it’s not talked about really seems to keep it alive as a problem."

Rape crisis centers have not ignored prevention. Essentially, though, their strategy has been to send experts into communities, hold forums and lectures with young people and move on to the next community hoping to have made an impact. Project Envision hopes to fundamentally shift this approach by making the community members the experts, who can in turn, train fellow community members, thereby solidly entrenching the issue in the local conversation.

The NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault began work on Project Envision in 2007. Since then, it, has since launched three pilot projects in the South Bronx, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. The project is in the early stages. So far, it has focused largely on t how change the discourse at a community level, and how to design and implement such a broad effort.

"Parts of this are very abstract," said Deesha Narichania, a rape crisis worker in Bushwick and member of the Williamsburg pilot program. "People don't really know how to wrap their heads around it because it's less concrete than intervening with victims, which is what we’re used to."

The project has spent much of its time trying to assess awareness of and attitudes about sexual violence in various communities. The project's members have taken to the streets to talk with pedestrians about their knowledge of sexual violence. Focus groups gathered more detailed information from longer conversations and exercises.

Making It Local

"This is very important that our plans are being shaped around these perceptions -- the community's perceptions," said Laura Fidler, employee at the Alliance and member of the Williamsburg pilot program. "It is what makes this community driven -- that this is by the community and for the community."

Envision members used this information to design action plans that reflect the specific community’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, researchers in the South Bronx found cycles of abuse that are passed from generation to generation are a commonly perceived cause of sexual violence in that community. Thus the South Bronx project will include an effort to reinforce healthy relationships between parents and children.

The Williamsburg coalition identified verbal sexual harassment as a major problem, so it will focus on educating young men and boys on the negative effects of such behavior -- that the mindset that enables verbal harassment also leads to rape and other forms of sexual violence.

The research unexpectedly turned out to have the extra benefit of garnering local support and recruiting members. "We found that it was also this effective community mobilizing tool. People that participated in our focus groups turned into important members of our project and in some cases leaders," said Fidler. "It was definitely challenging getting people who were rushing to catch a bus or subway to talk to us, but we did have a number of people stop and thank us for starting the conversation in Williamsburg. And that's what this is about -- starting the conversation."

Each pilot project is currently building partnerships with community organizations that they believe can have a deep and lasting impact on the area's residents. Like in the anti-smoking campaign, Envision’s strategy plans to work with existing organizations. Schools and afterschool programs are one component of this, but Envision seeks to cast a wider net that includes religious, cultural and neighborhood organizations. Each of these organizations has leaders who already hold sway in their communities. Envision hopes to make these leaders experts on sexual violence.

"We will figure out how to support and train the community leaders in this work until they will not have to rely on us at all," Narichania said. "We want this to stay in the community, not just with us."

In 2011 Envision plans to begin turning its work into concrete community programs in the three pilot neighborhoods. Members recognize that implementation too will be long process involving much trial and error.

"This has just never been done before," Harriet Lessel said. "We are not only continuing to treat victims of sexual violence as best we can, but we are now recapturing that activism that started the women's movement in the first place. We have arrived at a point where rape crisis programs are pretty expert at treating victims, but wouldn't it be better if there were fewer of them?"

Closing of Subway Booths Raises Safety Concerns

token booth
Photo by BKabak

In the wake of judge Saliann Scarpulla's decision that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority could not fire 260 token booth clerks and close subway station booths, the agency continues to move ahead with its plan, saying it must enact these measures to close its $800 million budget gap.

On June 4, Scarpulla, a state Supreme Court justice, decided that the MTA had closed the 14 revenue booths and 42 station Customer Assistance booths and laid off workers illegally due to them not having public hearings prior to taking action. The ruling also called for the MTA to rehire the laid off workers and reopen the closed booths.

For the Transport Workers Union, Scarpulla's ruling is bittersweet, since the clerks remain out of work and the booths closed while the transit authority appeals.

"The battle is long from won and unfortunately, despite several court orders favorable to our position, the MTA is successfully using delaying tactics," said Jim Gannon, spokesman for Transport Workers Union 100, which represents subway workers.

The MTA insists that the layoffs are necessary. "These closures were necessitated by the MTA's dire financial situation, and the need for the savings they generate remains," the agency said in a statement.

Safety Under Ground

Critics of the move, however, contend the closings will make subways station more dangerous places. "What the MTA is doing is bad for everyone except the swipers, muggers and terrorists. Riders understand this," said Gannon. "They hate booth closings."

The MTA declined to answer questions concerning possible safety concerns.

Ann Francis, a 68 year-old passenger who attended a recent union rally outside MTA headquarters, believes that the transportation authority board does not recognize the potential safety concerns. Calling the situation "nerve racking," she said, board members "don't represent people who ride transit."

"We do not just sell metro cards, we save lives," said Balwant Jaswal, a laid-off station agent who recalled times when she has had to call the police for passengers who have been stuck in elevators, separated from their parents or even fallen on the tracks. "If I wasn't there, nobody would be there to call the cops," she said.

"We aid in arrests. We are an extension of the NYPD," said Maurice Jenkins, a TWU vice president with the station agents division.

City Councilmember Peter Vallone, who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee, concurred with the safety concerns. The police department, he said, does not have additional officers to assign to the transit system. "The police are down to 35,000 officers," he said.

In response to such concerns, the State Senate this week passed a bill that would bar the transportation authority from laying off any more token clerks or running subway trains without conductors for three years or until completion of a report on subway safety. While the authority opposed the measure, its sponsor, Sen. Martin Dilan said, " "I really don't want to micromanage the MTA, but sometimes public safety trumps everything."

The layoffs have had another unintended costs, according to the union. Overtime expenses have reportedly risen as the authority needs clerks to work extra hours to staff booths.

An agency spokesperson, Paul Fleuranges, told the Daily News that the agency was still coming out ahead. "While we are spending overtime to cover overnight and weekend shifts, that overtime is less than what we would have paid in regular pay plus benefits," he said.

The Next Moves

New York Public Authority Law 1205 states that no closing of a booth can take place except during renovation and/or during an emergency, unless a public hearing has been held. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority now reportedly expects to hold hearings this month.

According to the TWU, the MTA plans to hold a pro forma session and not rehire workers who have been laid off.

In its statement, the authority said it will appeal the judge's ruling as well as "proceeding on a parallel track with the public hearing process. … The MTA Board authorized the public hearing process to move this vital cost-saving initiative forward."

Vallone places much of the blame for the current situation on the state government. The state last year took about $140 million from the MTA and transferred it to the state's general fund.

"Albany took the money from the MTA. Stopped MTA funding," Vallone said.

Whoever they might blame, the station agents continue to fight for their jobs.

"Now I have to pay for a mortgage. It's very hard for me. I don’t know what to do," said Narinder Singh, who was a station agent for two years before being laid off on May 11. He said the workers were given only 12 hours' notice, something he likened to "a human rights violation."

Jenkins, a station agent himself for the past 29 years, described the day for his fellow workers as one of the worst in his life. People came to him in tears after being called to a city school and told to turn in their equipment and given a seven-day metro card.

"I keep thinking this is all a dream," said Jaswal.

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