Gotham Gazette

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Bias in New York Prisons Requires a Blue Ribbon Commission Investigation

cuomo prison

Gov. Cuomo on a prison tour (photo via Governor's Office on flickr)

According to The Sentencing Project, New York State has led the nation by reducing its prison population by 26 percent between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10 percent. During these years of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in New York than national averages.

Yet, despite New York’s lead in simultaneously decarcerating its prison system and reducing crime, racial disparities throughout New York’s criminal justice system remain unchanged.

Recent investigative reports by The New York Times show how racial bias is infecting New York State prisons. The paper’s investigation found that black people in prison are punished at significantly higher rates than whites, sent to solitary confinement more often, and detained longer.

In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the state inspector general to investigate these “allegations” and recommend appropriate reforms for immediate implementation.

This is not enough.

Governor Cuomo must use his executive power to create a diverse, non-partisan Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate the widespread racial bias throughout New York State’s criminal justice system.

The commission’s independent investigation should go well beyond rooting out structurally racist practices in our prison and parole systems. It should undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s entire criminal justice system, from arrest to reentry, within a definitive timeline.

JustLeadershipUSA believes that those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution, but furthest from the resources and power. To that end, the governor must ensure that the commission includes formerly incarcerated leaders. The commission also should represent the interests of the gamut of other people and groups that interact with the criminal justice system— prosecutors, judges, police and correction officers, people in prison, defense attorneys, advocacy groups, think tanks, victims’ rights organizations, and academics.

After convening, reviewing practices and policies, listening to stakeholders, hearing from experts, and problem-solving for 12 months, this commission should then make recommendations for criminal justice reform to the governor and state Legislature, and disseminate its findings to the public.

In addition to appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission, the governor should use his executive power immediately to address the issues of parole and solitary confinement. With regard to parole, Governor Cuomo should:

  • Nominate more professionally, racially, and geographically diverse parole board candidates who more accurately represent the New York communities most impacted by crime and incarceration.
  • Increase transparency by publicly releasing data annually to provide clarity into parole decision-making.
  • Increase bandwidth of parole board members to ensure that cases are reviewed in person and with the thoughtfulness they deserve.

To truly address the issue of solitary confinement, Governor Cuomo should create a timeline for discontinuing the use of all solitary confinement and punitive segregation throughout the state prison system. He should also direct the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS) to immediately ensure that far fewer people are placed in solitary confinement.

And if people are sent to solitary, at the very least conditions and health care should be improved, time spent in solitary should be reduced, and detainees should receive a clear path, based on achievable goals, to earn their way out of solitary.

We will not dismantle hundreds of years of racial bias and discrimination in our criminal justice system in a vacuum. Instead, we must collaborate and engage with impacted people from varying walks of life.

If Governor Cuomo is truly committed to creating systemic change, the creation of a nonpartisan Blue Ribbon Commission is critical to uncovering the disparities in our prisons and our broader criminal justice system and identifying and implementing solutions. Together, we can work toward restoring a historically broken and racially inequitable system.

Glenn E. Martin is the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), a national organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. JLUSA empowers people most affected by incarceration to drive policy reform. Martin is a national leader and criminal justice reform advocate who spent six years in New York prisons. He is the recipient of the 2016 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. On Twitter @GlennEMartin.

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