Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Ending New York's Love Affair with Life Sentences

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Fishkill (photo: ©2021 Google Maps)

After being in maximum security prisons for approximately 30 years, one day I found myself in a van headed toward a medium security prison called Fishkill Correctional Facility. 

Looking back then, I remember seeing “Greenhaven,'' the maximum-security prison I was leaving behind and its imposing thirty-foot high fortress walls with guards patrolling the towers. Greenhaven has one of the largest populations of convicted people serving various kinds of sentences. More than half of the approximately 1,500 people there are serving life sentences.

In the upstate rural communities, “Lifers,” as they are called, are seen as golden calves for the local economies.

It’s part of why one out of every three people in New York state prisons has a life sentence, giving the state the third largest percentage of lifers across the country. Lifers tend to maintain a lock-step comradery as part of the larger prison landscape. Many carry the unpleasant reality, bred of common awareness, that the others “doing time” will inevitably be released and that their ability to reach that same moment may never be forthcoming.

This contextualization may help you understand the intrinsic familial bond that most Lifers seem to share. It may also help to explain why tears suddenly began to flow, and an overwhelming sense of sadness overcame me, after I turned around and saw Greenhaven’s 30-foot wall. It unexpectedly dawned on me that I was leaving behind family, individuals with whom I had shared harsh and at times precious memories over the course of many years.

This may also help to explain why then-Governor Andrew Cuomo's act of granting clemency to Paul Clark and five other Lifers whom I left behind at Greenhaven affected me so dearly. I took a long exhale as I learned the news. Paul's release, for one, made me recall the fateful day I looked back at the Greenhaven walls. That grim reminder made me aware that there were many more “Pauls” that I had left behind, who have worked to help others and have experienced an inner transformation that is worthy of a chance to be reunited with their family. 

In his final week in office, with no political capital to lose, Governor Cuomo finally decided to grant executive clemency to six individuals convicted of violent crimes. These individuals had been incarcerated between 30 to 50 years, and were just languishing in harsh prison conditions. Well established data concluded that these men belonged to a vast pool of individuals who have the lowest recidivism rate. The travesty of this gift, however, was that there was not a single woman, countless of whom have undergone the very same transformations, included amongst those granted clemency. 

Executive clemencies were never intended to be the only path to freedom for people who have changed or the sole mechanism in place  that recognizes a bad act is not determinative of the trajectory of a human life. Nor is it apt to address the plight that concerns one group in particular that has significantly increased as the older overall prison population has declined: an elderly prison population with life sentences. There are two pieces of legislation before New York state lawmakers that would bring a lot more justice, hope, and humany to New York.

The first being the Elder Parole (S.15A/A.3475A) bill. This Act would vest the Parole Board with the authority to recall elderly people 55 or older who have served 15 or more years in prison for a parole interview, on a case-by-case basis. The second bill, the Fair and Timely Act (S.1415A/A.4231A), would focus the Parole Board’s attention on who a person is today, and not solely the worst thing they ever did.

After half a century of cultural punishment that produced excessive sentences, deficiencies in medical parole and executive clemencies, and the shrinkage in Parole Board releases, it’s time for New York lawmakers to pass these two bills immediately.

Anthony Dixon is Director of Community Engagement at the Parole Preparation Project. On Twitter @ParolePrepNY.

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For Students to Recover and Thrive, New York Should Ensure Free School Meals Statewide

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School food (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

As students have returned to the classrooms, back-to-school jitters are likely to be at an all-time high. Anxiety about everything from vaccination status to social status may be keeping kids and parents up at night, but covering the cost of school meals should not be a cause for concern.

This school year, the Biden administration has temporarily made all school meals free of charge, a change that advocates are pushing to make permanent. Federal legislation would enable public schools to provide every student with the tools they need to learn: not just teachers and textbooks, but also salads and sandwiches. Learning on an empty stomach is hard, but universal free meals could help fix that problem, making it easier for students to learn and thrive.

Permanently providing free school breakfast and lunch for all is fundamental to the promise of educational opportunity across the United States. Students from food-insecure families are less likely to succeed in school, but research shows that free meals improve academic performance and mental wellbeing. Universal meals can also improve health. Students who eat school meals every day have better diets than students who do not—they consume more fruits, vegetables, fiber, and whole grains, which in turn reduces their risk of diet-related diseases. Health care costs can drop, as can the costs schools pay per meal, because when stigma around school lunch decreases, participation increases.

Recognizing the benefits of universal meals, California and Maine recently passed legislation that makes school meals free for all students. If the federal government doesn’t make the current free school meal policy a permanent one, New York legislators should consider passing a policy like California’s or Maine’s.

In a state with such high living costs, many families struggle to cover the cost of school meals and food insecurity rates remain sky high. In practice, sympathetic school food staff often serve hungry kids food regardless of their ability to pay, which results in many families acquiring meal debt.

In August, state legislators took a step to address this issue, passing legislation that shields families from litigation for unpaid school meal fees. This new law keeps the matter of school lunches out of the courtroom, but it still permits schools to chase down parents for payment. It is time for a solution that in one fell swoop eliminates all these problems—school meals free for all students. That is the only way to spare students the shame of meal debt and schools the time spent pursuing the debt in the first place.

We’ve seen the very real benefits of accessible school meals in New York City, where we secured free breakfast and lunch for all public school students, regardless of income. This local policy change ensured that all students—including those who are homeless, in foster care, or have recently immigrated—do not fall through the cracks. Test scores in both English and math have risen and stigma has decreased. Research released in June shows that all students, regardless of income, reported a reduction in bullying and fighting and an overall better environment after New York City schools started serving meals free of charge.

All students across New York State deserve the benefits that universal school meals provide. With large school districts like New York City, Rochester, Yonkers, and Albany already providing universal meals, the state is well on its way to making free meals available to all.

The longer-term economic crisis stemming from COVID-19 will likely leave millions teetering on the brink of food insecurity for years to come. As students head back to school, lawmakers should think ahead. There should be no shame in needing food to fuel learning. The real shame would be missing the opportunity that covid has provided: to rethink school meals and make it easier for schools to serve students the meals they need to thrive.

Liz Accles is Executive Director of Community Food Advocates and successfully led a coalition to secure universal free meals for all 1.1 million New York City public school students. Julia McCarthy is Senior Program Officer at New York State Health Foundation, where she is on the Healthy Food, Healthy Lives team, and is former Deputy Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy.

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Eight Ideas to Drive New York’s Economic Recovery Now

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Ribbon-cutting and more ahead (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

It'd be foolish to bet against New York City, but a full and robust comeback from the COVID-19 crisis is not guaranteed without bold action. It’s increasingly clear that the city’s recovery isn’t like any other. Companies are delaying return to work plans, the 10.2% unemployment rate is among the highest of any major city in the country, and the rates of joblessness among New Yorkers of color and young adults are particularly alarming. 

Meanwhile, no other city is coping with as many structural economic challenges brought on by the pandemic. The rise of remote work and the slow recovery of tourism to the ongoing disruption in retail and the severe blow dealt to the arts disproportionately threaten essential parts of New York’s economy. 

Putting New York on course for a lasting and equitable recovery will not only require bold action, but also solutions that are new, innovative, and creative. Fortunately, the massive turnover in city government taking place in less than four months—as well as new leadership in Albany—presents an incredible opportunity to take critical steps toward recovery. We’ve already seen many primary election winners proposing big new ideas for building a stronger and fairer city.  

The Center for an Urban Future recently published a blueprint for an equitable recovery that features concrete policy ideas from a diverse mix of 175 engaged New Yorkers. Some of the nearly 250 ideas we received would help create jobs right now or support the New Yorkers hardest hit by the pandemic, while others would lay the foundation for a stronger and more inclusive economy over the long run. 

While each idea is worthy of consideration, we think the following eight warrant swift action from current and soon-to-be elected city leaders. 

1. Pair tech-savvy CUNY students with small businesses that need help adopting technology (S. David Wu, President, Baruch College)
Many small businesses are still hanging on by a thread and need urgent help modernizing their operations with e-commerce, digital marketing, and better financial planning. The city can help make them more competitive in the long-run by creating a matching service that pairs businesses with talented, digitally-savvy CUNY students who are rooted in the communities facing the greatest ongoing needs. 

2. Make NYC a global capital of public health (Seth Pinsky, CEO, 92nd Street Y)
As a result of the pandemic, millions of dollars in new public and private investment are poised to flow into the public health sector, resulting in thousands of new, well-paying jobs. This means investing in hospitals and the healthcare system and finally making good on the promise of New York becoming a leading hub in commercial bioscience. And unlike many other parts of the city’s economy, most of these jobs can’t easily be done remotely. 

3. Spur the return to offices by supporting public programming that reinvigorates business districts (Larisa Ortiz, Managing Director, Streetsense)
To lure office workers back, the city should support new public amenities and programming in these districts—including new options that aren’t found in most residential neighborhoods. For example, New York should take a page from Vancouver, which has turned alleys into brightly painted spaces with basketball courts and foosball tables, and Montreal, which created interactive, musical swing sets. 

4. Spur economic development in underserved communities by making long-overdue public realm improvements (Purnima Kapur, Chief of University Planning and Design, Harvard University)
Economic development officials can spark economic investment, small business growth, and job creation in low-income communities across the five boroughs by making public realm investments like upgrading sidewalks, creating new pocket parks, and improving lighting. Streetscape improvements like these often serve as catalysts for economic development, but too many of the city’s hard-hit neighborhoods have historically been left out of these local place-making projects. 

5. Break the logjam around housing development in NYC with a grand bargain around housing and jobs (Rafael Cestero, President, Community Preservation Corp)
The pandemic has only amplified the need for more affordable housing. It’s time to forge a grand bargain by creating a citywide structure that eliminates the power of individual groups or local representatives to scuttle projects because of micro-issues, reallocates housing vouchers to create deeply affordable housing at a mass scale in the communities that need it most, and mandates local hiring on all major projects involving city land or capital. 

6. Provide new income supports for NYC’s fast-growing (but low-wage) direct care workforce (Jodi M. Sturgeon, President, PHI)
The industry already employs more than 320,000 New Yorkers, and the aging city population makes it near certain that the number of jobs will grow significantly in the decade ahead. But the sector also pays among the lowest wages of any industry. The city should establish a Home Care Jobs Innovation Fund, providing workers with transportation funds, scholarship programs, and retention bonuses, while also making new investments in career training for direct care workers to improve their job quality and economic prospects.

7. Create an NYC Climate Corps (Tonya Gayle, Executive Director, Green City Force)
Teens and young adults across the city have been far more likely to lose work during the pandemic than other New Yorkers. The city can help thousands of these young adults get on track by leveraging federal infrastructure funds to create an NYC Climate Corps, which would also crucially help the city prepare for the impacts of climate change.  

8. Invest in quality childcare for New Yorkers in workforce training programs (Plinio Ayala, President and CEO, Per Scholas)
With 400,000 New Yorkers unemployed and many industries facing a slow road to recovery, the city should help out-of-work New Yorkers acquire new skills so they can transition into industries that are growing. But this will require addressing a barrier that has long prevented many low-income New Yorkers from enrolling in workforce training programs: a lack of affordable childcare. 

The next mayor and new leaders across city government will need a lot of good ideas in the year ahead to ensure that the city’s nascent recovery takes hold and accelerates. To build a stronger and more equitable economy over the long run, city leaders should tap into the ingenuity and experience of our fellow New Yorkers who understand how to best support the city’s diverse communities and economy.

Jonathan Bowles is the Executive Director of Center for an Urban Future. Winston Fisher is a Partner at Fisher Brothers. On Twitter @jbowlesnyc & @nycfuture & @Winston_Fisher1.

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Letter to the Editor: More Lawsuits Won’t Help Workers or New York

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New York workers (photo: Governor Cuomo's office)

To The Editor:

It is no surprise that the trial lawyers’ chief lobbyist and a labor advocate who curiously finds time to push the plaintiff bar’s agenda view litigation as the best way to promote worker safety (“This Labor Day, Celebrate Workers by Ensuring Their Safety,” by Halina Radchenko & Charlene Obernauer).

It’s not.

Over the past century, increased regulations and advancements in workplace safety have saved lives and livelihoods across industries in the United States. Unfortunately, New York’s civil justice system has not caught up. Instead of ensuring that enforcement is left in the hands of accountable public agencies, the Empire State’s regulatory environment often seeks to enforce worker protections through lawsuits, saddling businesses with massive legal costs and enriching trial attorneys without truly increasing safety for workers.

The NY HERO Act, passed earlier this year, is one such example of a misguided attempt to litigate worker safety. In addition to workplace regulations, the law creates a private right of action for exposure to infectious diseases. This means that employers can be sued for alleged COVID-19 exposure after the fact. This hindsight litigation will not make any workers safer, but could instead lead to lawyers shaking down businesses for payouts.

Worker safety should not be about trial lawyer profits. We need regulators, who serve the public interest, to regulate. Deputizing trial lawyers looking to boost their bottom lines will lead to profit-seeking litigation, rather than improving worker safety.

Radchenko and Obernauer also tout New York’s unique Scaffold Law as an example of the state’s support for workers. This outdated statute has long-plagued construction projects in the state by imposing absolute liability on property owners and contractors for height-related worksite injuries, driving up costs for liability insurance and discouraging investment in infrastructure and development. Despite drastic improvements in safety measures on construction sites, this century-old law continues to punish employers, even if a plaintiff is 99% at fault. Most alarmingly, the law has been shown to do nothing to keep workers safe – a study peer reviewed by the Transportation Research Board found that the Scaffold Law may actually increase construction accidents.

For plaintiffs attorneys, civil litigation is an extractive industry. The abundance of advertisements for personal injury attorneys in media, on billboards, and at bus stops across the state, particularly in low-income communities, is further evidence that the plaintiffs’ bar uses New York’s civil litigation system to grow rich off the backs of the economically disadvantaged. And with the latest digital ad technology their advertisements are targeted at construction sites, intersections, and healthcare facilities. A study published in the Vanderbilt Law Review found that “places with many claims per capita...tend to be places with low per capita income.” The same study also finds that attorneys’ fees almost always amount to the maximum allowed by law.

Another bill, awaiting the Governor’s veto or signature, would force companies from other states or countries that do business in New York to accept the general jurisdiction of the state’s courts. This would not, as Radchenko and Obernauer suggest, “strengthen the civil justice system” – on the contrary, if signed into law this bill would promote venue shopping and abusive litigation by enticing out of state attorneys to take advantage of New York’s plaintiff-friendly legal environment. The bill also likely runs afoul of Supreme Court precedent; in 2014, Justice Ginsburg delivered the majority opinion in Daimler v. Bauman, which ruled that general jurisdiction can only be applied in an entity’s home country or state. 

Honoring and protecting our essential workers is critical, but in doing so we must be careful not to recklessly promote excessive litigation. Lawsuits have a place in our legal system, but using them to retroactively sue for COVID-19 exposure is at best misguided, and at worst a giveaway to the plaintiffs’ bar, overburdening our courts and harming the businesses that drive our economy.

Tom Stebbins
Executive Director at the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York
On Twitter @LawsuitReformNY.

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Ending the Crisis on Rikers Island

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Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

There is a humanitarian crisis unfolding right before our very eyes on Rikers Island. The conditions that incarcerated individuals and staff are subjected to at the city’s jail complex — conditions that have been reported and documented by news accounts and the personal observations of many of my colleagues in government — are on par with, perhaps even worse than, what we expect to read about in countries without a commitment to human rights.

As my colleague Assembly Member Emily Gallagher recently witnessed, “there's garbage everywhere, rotting food with maggots, cockroaches, worms in the showers, human feces and piss. Most of the toilets are broken so men are given plastic bags to relieve themselves in…Because of the lack of security, everyone's scared they're going to be injured or killed. Most people have fashioned some kind of homemade weapon to defend themselves.”

So far this year, ten incarcerated individuals have been killed, including four by suicide. 

Exacerbating this crisis is the toll the pandemic has taken on the personnel who work at Rikers Island. To date, more than 2,200 corrections officers have been affected by the coronavirus, resulting in a massive staffing shortage that has continued to spiral, forcing officers to work double, triple, and in some cases, even quadruple shifts without any relief. Many officers resort to sleeping in their cars between shifts, not wanting to drive home for fear of falling asleep at the wheel. Absenteeism is also on the rise, with an estimated 2,000 officers calling in sick on a daily basis. In some cases, prison units have even gone 24 hours without guards.  

In addition to the consequences for the workers, the majority of whom are people of color, these conditions inhibit our officers’ ability to conduct important services, such as protecting incarcerated individuals from assault and taking them to their court appearances. As the crisis continues to worsen, officers are less and less able to fully perform their jobs safely. The family of deceased inmate Robert Jackson believes that his death was caused, in part, by the fact that a guard in his 20th consecutive hour of work stepped away from his post. This was an utter tragedy that could have been prevented. 

This is the reality currently playing out inside Rikers. Incarcerated individuals and personnel fear for their lives and have been left to fend for themselves by the Mayor and Department of Correction. As one officer I spoke with told me, "Inmate, officer, at this point we’re all on the same side. We all just want to get the hell out of here. People don’t see us so we don’t exist.”

Just this week Mayor de Blasio announced a widely panned five-part plan to address the staffing crisis plaguing the jail facility, but did so without even talking to the union and staff who work there currently about what they need to do their job safely and humanely. Notably, the mayor did not commit to ending triple and quadruple shifts for officers, and instead, the heart of the plan is to punish public workers who call out sick. Placing the blame solely on officers, who did not start this fire, is a poor excuse for a solution.

This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for New York City. We need a comprehensive solution that will take into account the full scope of the atrocities that are happening to workers and incarcerated individuals on Rikers.

There needs to be a substantive dialogue between the Department of Correction and the correction officers union to address ongoing safety and staffing concerns. In addition to that substantive dialogue, there are two key pieces of legislation that could help abate this crisis.

The “Less is More” bill helps facilitate the release of people currently incarcerated on Rikers merely for technical, and not criminal, parole violations by putting them in front of a judge to determine whether they should continue to be in jail, thereby lessening the burden on the rest of the overburdened system. It currently awaits Governor Hochul’s signature. 

Additionally, Senator Jessica Ramos has proposed legislation, S6688, that would cap the number of consecutive hours any city employee can work at 17. Frankly, even that number may be too high, but it’s better than 25. I urge all of my colleagues who care about what is happening at Rikers, and care about all workers, to co-sponsor this important bill.

The truth is this: if these workplace conditions existed in any other workplace, and for any other workers, we’d all be out in the streets protesting in outrage. If it’s not OK to work sweatshop hours as an Amazon warehouse employee, why is it OK to work multiple 25-plus-hour days in a week if you are a public servant of color with a uniform and a badge?

It’s time for us to solve this crisis. It’s to engage with everyone with the common purpose to save the lives of everyone on Rikers Island. It’s time for the City of New York to make a clear and unequivocal statement that these public servants and incarcerated individuals should not be subjected to work or live in inhumane and brutal conditions.

State Senator Andrew Gounardes represents parts of Brooklyn and chairs the Senate’s civil service and pension committee. On Twitter @Sen_Gounardes.

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Universal Access to Music Education for All New York City Students Should Be a Top Priority

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Music for all (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

While Dr. Miguel Cardona, the US Secretary for Education says “music is a way for students to find themselves and learn critical thinking skills,” over 50% of New York City schools have no full-time music teacher. Cardona thinks—and I agree—that music education is integral to a well-rounded education and “one of the best ways” we can nurture students’ natural talents and interests. 

My entire education was centered around being in the school’s band. The fondness with which I look back on my time in school brought me to the conclusion that every New York City student should have access to high quality music education. It’s why I began serving on the Development Board of Education Through Music (ETM), a nonprofit that provides music education to tens of thousands of New York City students. It is our belief that by limiting access to music to the wealthiest districts and families, students in poorer schools and districts miss out on life-changing opportunities. 

Schools offering music have better academic outcomes. Studies show that students with music and arts education fare better academically than students who do not have access to it. In New York City, schools in low-income areas are often forced to cut their arts and music budgets. Thus these students, who are often Black and Latino, miss out on an aspect of education afforded to their wealthier, white counterparts.

Music is a wonderful way to build connections among students by supporting their social and emotional development. I was in the jazz band at my public school. We performed at school functions, and were an integral part of the school’s culture. Those of us in band were able to engage with the whole school community. I made all my closest friends through music, and even started a ska band with my jazz band friends. 

Building community like this can be harder in under-resourced schools with fewer field trips and extracurriculars, heightening the need for music. At Education Through Music, our teachers have found community building even more important in light of the pandemic. Playing together has helped students express their emotions. Taking the time to engage with music has given them the space to reset from the pressures of virtual learning. Beyond playing music, the classes teach students how to support one another, and listen to each other’s concerns outside of academics.

New York City’s economy depends on the arts and cultural sectors. Before the pandemic, the creative sector accounted for 13% of the city’s total economic output. Overall, one out of every eight dollars of economic activity in the city—$110 billion in 2017—could be traced directly or indirectly to the sector. We need to remember what goes into creating the next generation of artists and workers in the music industry, and give all students the skills they need to succeed.

By withholding access to music education from students in low-income areas we are holding these students back. Music opens the door to stronger community ties, better academic achievement, and the skills needed to thrive in one of the economy’s largest sectors. Music education should be thought of as an issue of equity, and approached with the same rigor and urgency as other educational initiatives in New York. Our children deserve better.

Arpan Somani is the co-chair of the development board of Education Through Music, a NYC nonprofit providing trained music educators to public schools who do not otherwise have them. On Twitter @ETMonline.

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Adults Need to Grow Up If We Want to Keep Our Kids Safe

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Back to school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

We’ve all seen the news lately. It’s rife with images of chaotic school board meetings and rallies starring adults engaged in tantrums, which we would never tolerate from our children. Every parent wants what they believe is best for their children. However, if we want them to get back to school safely, the adults in the metaphorical room need to stop fighting and adhere to public health guidelines.

As health care professionals, our message is that children should safely return to the school setting. The needs of our children are best addressable in school as opposed to remotely. Children who require interventions such as occupational therapy, nutritional and safety assessments, behavioral counseling, etc., can be identified, and services provided. Children’s psychosocial and emotional development is also enhanced by interacting with peers and teachers in person. In short, the benefits of in-class learning are imperative, and we must focus on keeping the school environment safe, given what we know about the community spread of COVID-19.

How do we do that? Masks and vaccines work. Would you send your child to school without protection from rain or snow? Then, don’t send your child to school without a mask in the middle of this deadly pandemic.

The science is clear. Wearing a mask lessens the risk of COVID-19 transmission. In close indoor environments, we need to ensure that proper ventilation is available, appropriate social distancing is followed, and that we protect our school communities by wearing masks.

Eligible individuals who are 12 and older must get vaccinated. Vaccines lessen the risk of severe covid complications, including hospitalization and death, and help us protect vulnerable people who are not yet eligible for inoculation.

Two CDC studies published in late August conclude that covid cases, ER visits, and hospitalizations are lower among children from communities with higher vaccination rates. July data from 14 states indicated that hospitalizations among unvaccinated adolescents 12-17 years were nearly ten times higher than those who were fully vaccinated. A second study reported a nearly fourfold higher hospitalization rate among children and adolescents who were not fully vaccinated (August data).

These studies highlight the importance of vaccinating to protect ourselves and our children. Though chances of serious illness, hospitalizations, and death are low in children, it does occur, with a disproportionate number of Black and Latino children experiencing significant complications.

When I encounter a vaccine-hesitant patient, I routinely ask them if they know any cure for polio or smallpox. Invariably, the response is no. I inform them that we have no cure for these diseases and that they no longer occur due to the success of our vaccine initiatives. Smallpox vaccines became mandatory, resulting in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Boston Department of Health in 1905. Smallpox is now a historical footnote globally, and the vaccine is no longer needed.

Vaccine science isn’t new. The barrage of misinformation on social media comes with a political slant, while the science remains apolitical. Our mission is clear. We aim to discover best practices for keeping people informed and safe.

As adults, we are our children’s protectors, and we owe it to them to make sure we are making the right decisions for their health, which means making sure we are vaccinated against COVID-19 and ensuring that our children, if eligible, are too.

We also need to make sure that they are up to date on their wellness check-ups, vaccinations, and, when in school, wearing a mask. The scrimmaging, silliness, and sideshows need to end, and our priority needs to be on keeping our kids healthy and safe.

Dr. Beverly Sheppard is the Chair of the Pediatrics Department at AdvantageCare Physicians (ACPNY), one of the largest primary and specialty care practices in the New York area.

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Seize the Moment to Modernize New York Democracy for the Digital Era

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The digital era comes to government meetings (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In late June, more than 200 people packed into a church basement for a Manhattan Community Board (CB) meeting on the contentious proposed rezoning of parts of Soho and Noho. Representatives of the New York City Department of City Planning were scheduled to make a presentation, but opponents of the rezoning booed and shouted over the planners. 

This kind of scene is all too familiar to those who’ve attended community board meetings in the past. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Just ask anyone who attended these meetings virtually during the pandemic. 

As New York City’s covid cases spiked in March 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended aspects of the state’s Open Meetings Law, allowing the city’s 59 community boards to operate over Zoom or other platforms. Crosstalk and shouting became nearly impossible. Board members were able to stick to the agenda. Some boards say they prefer to meet this way and intend to keep doing so, even if they run afoul of current law.

Many feared that online meetings would be less representative because too many New Yorkers lack high-speed internet connections. This would be a problem for CBs, whose legitimacy is already in question because they attract audiences that are older, whiter, and wealthier than the communities they represent.

But the experiment in online meetings proved to be more inclusive, not less. In interviews Cornell Tech’s Urban Tech Hub conducted for its Rebooting New York report, representatives of 13 of 14 CBs reported that virtual meetings increased public turnout and engagement. One board member noted, “We are seeing more parents of young children, more youth, more cross-city interest, and yes, larger numbers of people, since capacity is no longer an issue.” Applications to serve on CBs in Brooklyn have surged since the meetings went virtual.

It turns out that many of the factors that have made CBs unrepresentative stem from the way they meet. People with work, school, or caretaking schedules that prevent them from getting to a meeting in person at 6 p.m. on a weeknight don’t often join; neither do people with limited mobility. Non-native English speakers, as well as people who are deaf or hard of hearing, can find the proceedings difficult to follow. For countless New Yorkers, a Zoom room is more accessible than a physical one. 

That’s why we recommend not only that community boards continue meeting virtually or in a hybrid format, but also that they make use of additional features of online meetings, such as automatic closed-captioning and transcription, computerized translation into multiple languages, and alerts for specific topics. 

In order to fulfill their promise, virtual or hybrid meetings will need to be modernized and standardized. You can’t hold a truly effective virtual meeting from a gym or basement without the right tools. Hybrid meetings require special attention to ensure that people in the room don’t drown out those who are attending online. 

High-speed internet is essential, along with quality sound and video systems. Community board members need comprehensive training to operate those tools and create new procedures that ensure full participation. And members of the public need access, through broadband connections at home or in venues like libraries that could be set up for virtual participation. It’s all going to require experimentation and support from the borough presidents’ offices, along with civic and digital literacy groups.

In Manhattan, Borough President Gale Brewer’s office funded virtual meeting solutions for the borough’s 12 CBs at the cost of almost $1,500 per district. BetaNYC, a civic tech group, worked with these boards and others throughout the city to ensure that the move to virtual platforms was as seamless and equitable as possible.

All that was just a beginning, though. Legislation introduced and later signed by Governor Kathy Hochul extended the ability to meet online through Jan. 15, 2022, but that is only a stopgap. Elected officials must act now to allow this new type of meeting to continue to evolve. While we don’t have final answers on what form CB meetings will take in the future, we can build a robust framework for their evolution.

Before January, the New York State Legislature should host hearings on how best to amend the Open Meetings Law to align with the needs of the digital era. New York Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou is sponsoring a bill that would allow board members to convene virtually and require such meetings to be accessible to the public. With some modifications, Niou’s legislation would provide a solid footing for a new, more democratic type of community board meeting. The discussion is crucial for everyone who cares about representation in New York. 

The city and state should provide adequate funding and procurement support for the hardware and software needed to run meetings, along with training for board members through grants to community partners with relevant expertise. Packaged into a standard “webcasting kit,” these tools could be provided at better rates and with less administrative overhead. Crucially, the city should also press forward with initiatives to guarantee high-speed internet connections for all New Yorkers.

It’s likely that an all-virtual world wouldn’t be perfect. We need to experiment to get this right. Should there be alternating online and in-person meetings? Can hybrid meetings be truly inclusive? Should immunocompromised people have the option of participating from a separate room? These are all questions that can only be answered in practice.  

If we value democracy, we must modernize it for the digital era. The next mayor, City Council members, and borough presidents have the opportunity to lead the city into a more representative post-pandemic future, in collaboration with state lawmakers. Broadening public participation in collective decision-making will drive greater political legitimacy. 

We now have a rare opportunity to secure the accessibility gains prompted by this once-in-a-century crisis. Let’s not miss it.

Rit Aggarwala is a Senior Urban Tech Fellow at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute and a member of Manhattan Community Board 8. Noel Hidalgo is Executive Director of BetaNYC. On Twitter @Rit_Aggarwala, @noneck@BetaNYC.

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Addressing the Rise in Mental Health Challenges Among Hispanic Youth

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Students at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Young people are often uncomfortable asking for help. Now imagine there is a language barrier as well. Children, teens, and young adults are currently battling social isolation, loneliness, and mental illness in increasing numbers, and the language barrier greatly exacerbates this for Spanish-speaking youth and their families. 

Access to mental health services has traditionally been lower for this community. More than half of Hispanic young adults ages 18-25 with serious mental illness may not receive treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, (NAMI). The organization also reported that approximately 34% of Hispanic adults with mental illness receive treatment each year compared to the United States average of 45%.

Right now, there is a shortage of mental health providers in the U.S., regardless of language, and more so of bilingual mental health providers. USA Facts estimates that an additional 6,398 mental health providers, including psychiatrists, social workers, and therapists are needed to fill in the gaps. At Astor Services for Children & Families, we are feeling that lack acutely given that we work with a high percentage of Spanish-speaking families in our out-patient programs in the Bronx.

For the first time in my 13-plus years at Astor, we had to suspend intakes. We simply did not have enough clinicians, particularly in our out-patient clinics, to provide the level of care that’s needed for this population. We must make sure everyone is getting quality service, and we can only do that if we have the right family-to-clinician caseload ratio.

While we are coming out of the pandemic, our children and families still require an increased level of care and support. Clients who were socially isolated are coming to us with multiple diagnoses; for example, they may come in with depression and then also be diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress. We are also seeing widespread trauma and anxiety about returning to in-person school. Many of our families also have multiple stressors around the economy and employment. 

As we continue to assess needs and prioritize the most critical cases on our wait-list, how can we best address this shortage of caregivers across our industry and better serve our community? The first solution is to be able to hire more bilingual family advocates. A family advocate provides strong support to a family, and many can be high school graduates. If the city provided funding for mental health non-profits, including Astor, to be able to hire more family advocates, they could be that bridge between the family and the mental health provider until they are ready to support them with a licensed clinician. 

New York City is looking to hire 500 social workers over a three-year period. However, the city should not be in the business of hiring social workers; and must leave that to the experts in the field and who are already helping the city’s youth deal with their mental health challenges and emotional needs every day.

Let us do the work and collaborate with the schools. Astor already works in 35 schools in the Bronx, so it makes most sense that the city should step back and provide Astor and all agencies that are already working with mental health the funding to do what we are the experts at, for the greatest good of the youth.

With trust and critical funds, mental health nonprofits across the city can do what they do best. In fact, by investing in the support and care of all our youth today, we are paving the way for a better and more hopeful and healthy future.

Yvette Bairan is Chief Executive Officer at Astor Services for Children & Families. On Twitter @AstorServices.

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New York Gerrymandering: When the Puzzle Pieces Don’t Fit

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The #DrawDemocracy NY gerrymandering jigsaw puzzle

The 2020 Census data is out, and redistricting of legislative boundaries has officially begun. While state leaders should see the new data as a chance to understand how New York’s changing communities can be better represented, historically, our elected officials have used redistricting to favor themselves and special interests. It’s time for this tradition to end -- New Yorkers cannot wait another decade for fair representation.

To show New Yorkers just how ugly our state’s gerrymandering is, the #DrawDemocracy campaign has developed what we believe to be the first-ever Gerrymandering Jigsaw Puzzle based on electoral districts – in this case, the New York State Senate (yes, you can get one for yourself).

The New York State Senate’s lines were drawn by Republicans as part of a power-sharing agreement with Democrats, who were allowed to draw their own Assembly districts. One reason both parties maintained such strong grips on their respective chambers for so long is gerrymandering.

Since the Democrats now have a supermajority in both houses, the power-sharing agreement no longer exists. That means that this year’s redistricting, occurring under several new parameters for the first time, is an opportunity to win lines that are more representative of actual communities. During this summer’s hearings, many advocacy groups like APA-VOICE and the League of Women Voters have powerfully demonstrated how gerrymandering has impacted communities around the state.

A prime example of this is South Brooklyn’s State Senate District 19, which is so badly gerrymandered that we had to change the shape of its puzzle piece, making the district look less gerrymandered than it actually is. This happened with one district after another -- it was impossible to create a puzzle that was an exact replica with so many districts where certain areas are the size of a single city block.

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The little chunk on the bottom left of District 19 above – which looks like a puddle of tea spilled from a pitcher – was once part of District 27, just west. Lew Fidler, a popular Democratic City Council member, ran for State Senate in a special election there, losing by just a hair. Rumor had it that he planned to run again.

But the GOP – which then controlled the State Senate – wanted to create a district for conservative Democrat Simcha Felder. So they drew a district that in the northwest had Borough Park, which had more of Felder’s likely voters. Then, to keep Fidler from running in District 27 as he’d planned, they expanded the new District 19 lines so that he was now a resident. Fidler now lived in a district where he had no base – knowing he didn’t have a chance, he declined to run.

Fidler died a few years later, never holding office again despite his wide popularity, being an inspiration for local figures from Jumaane Williams to Justin Brannan (he recently had a street named after him). It’s another tragic story of how gerrymandering lets politicians choose their voters, instead of the other way around.

This year, elected officials have an opportunity to not repeat the wrongs of the past. They can draw districts that serve those in power or draw districts that allow communities to have the representation they serve. We hope they choose the latter – the last thing we want is to have to make another Gerrymandering Jigsaw Puzzle in 2031. 

by Karen Young of the #DrawDemocracy Campaign, a partnership between True Democracy NY and RepresentUS NYC to educate New Yorkers about the anti-democratic practice of partisan gerrymandering and organize them to advocate for fair district maps. On Twitter @drawdemocracyny.

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Ubiquitous Surveillance and Civil Rights Infringements: A Tragic Legacy of 9/11

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NYPD counterterrorism (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The tragic impacts of the September 11 attacks stretch far beyond the nearly three thousand people who lost their lives that day 20 years ago. 

Over the last two decades, government forces have trampled on civil rights and liberties in the name of 9/11. Deeply entrenched aspects of our society like the ubiquitous surveillance state that follows us wherever we go, the military mission creep that’s infected our domestic law enforcement, and the unbridled police power that departments wield are all direct results of actions taken in the name of preventing another attack. 

Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities were the first to feel the repercussions of that fateful day. They were illegally mass-arrested, beaten, and killed in the days and weeks immediately following September 11.

Eventually, the abuses justified by 9/11 impacted all of us – though they still fall disproportionately on AMEMSA communities and other Black and Brown people. Many of the things we don’t think twice about today would have seemed unimaginable to Americans before the twin towers fell. 

Here in New York, it’s now taken for granted that tens of thousands of cameras watch nearly every move we make. The same is true in cities and towns across the country. 

The New York Police Department – the largest police force in the country – proudly touts its all-seeing Domain Awareness System as “one of the world's largest networks of cameras, license plate readers, and radiological censors, designed to detect and prevent terrorist acts, but also of great value in criminal investigations” [emphasis added].

Those last eight words reflect a key component of the 9/11 legacy. Attacks like the ones on September 11 are incredibly rare, but that doesn’t mean tools purportedly designed to stop them are used sparingly. Instead, nearly all of the weapons, laws, and agencies ostensibly created to stop attacks inevitably get wielded for other, much broader uses.

The military equipment deployed during two decades of endless war, for example, always comes back to the streets of America, most often in poor Black and Brown neighborhoods. Whether it’s mine-resistant tanks that rumble through our neighborhoods, drones that hover above us, Stingrays that spy on our cell phones, or x-ray vans that can see through our walls, the military’s tools of war are now used to brutalize and keep tabs on Americans.

Whole agencies that were created to defend national security are now deployed against people without any even alleged ties to violence. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for instance, was created in 2003 to “better protect national security.” But that mission is hard to square with ICE agents raiding work places, staking out courthouses, and invading the homes of mostly Black and Brown immigrants who – by ICE’s own admission – rarely pose a threat to national security.

While new bureaucracies like ICE quickly broadened their mandates, police departments seized on 9/11 to accumulate more power and cloak their actions in increased secrecy.

Raising the specter of terrorism, the NYPD successfully convinced a judge in 2003 to weaken the rules meant to prevent the department from surveilling New Yorkers engaged in lawful activities. 

Then in 2012, the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD had dispatched undercover officers into predominantly Muslim neighborhoods and used informants, known as "mosque crawlers," to monitor sermons, even when nothing illegal was taking place.

The NYPD put entire neighborhoods, hundreds of mosques, and numerous student groups under surveillance based on their demographics, not on any evidence of criminal activity. After six years of this unlawful spying, the NYPD admitted this work never produced a single lead or sparked one terrorism investigation.

After a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union, the rules preventing unlawful spying by the NYPD were strengthened and the unit responsible for snooping on Muslims was disbanded. But the message was clear: 9/11 fears can and will be used to justify police power grabs. 

Blanket surveillance is not just invasive and ineffective, it’s actively harmful. Communities targeted by surveillance are publicly criminalized and vilified, which can lead to physical abuse by law enforcement, incarceration, deportation, and other life-shattering consequences.

While the occasional act of law enforcement overreach gets exposed and reigned in, it’s far more common for police activities to remain hidden, with national security trotted out as the excuse. This means the harmful consequences of law enforcement overreach are often hidden as well.

The NYPD reacted to proposed legislation that would force it to reveal the invasive surveillance technology it uses to spy on New Yorkers by promising – without any evidence – that this information would be used by terrorists. Now this legislation is the law of the land, but the NYPD is still using the fear of terror to subvert it.

The NYPD also uses this rationale to cover up its tracking of protesters. The department is not alone. Across the country, law enforcement agencies know that evoking September 11 is a tried and true strategy for hiding what they’re up to.

What the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has made abundantly clear 20 years later is that the freedoms and rights we trade away in the midst of an emergency are exceedingly difficult to claw back once that emergency has faded from the headlines.

Toni Smith-Thompson is a Senior Organizer at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). On Twitter @mstonij & @nyclu.

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