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Peter Liang’s Conviction Shouldn't Be Dividing the Asian American Community


nypd sea

(Diana Robinson/Mayoral Photography Office) 


Rookie New York Police Department Officer Peter Liang was on patrol in an East New York housing project in November 2014 when a bullet from his gun ricocheted off a wall and killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley, a black man. The uproar over Gurley’s death culminated in Liang’s conviction of second-degree manslaughter this month, provoking an unusually strong but misguided reaction from the Asian American community.

The anger boils down to the notion that Liang was the subject of selective prosecution. In other words, he did not go through the same judicial process as the white officers who have gotten away with killing young black men. Framing Liang’s conviction in this context is not only insincere but misleading. If we were to follow this trend of unaccountability, we would essentially call for Liang’s freedom—something that would run counter to the concept of justice and, more importantly, devalue Gurley’s life.

We need to consider whether this incident actually illustrates discrimination against Asian Americans or reinforces the reality that white police officers are not being held responsible for the loss of black lives. If the goal of the recent rallies across the nation is to indeed raise awareness of the latter problem, then opponents of Liang’s conviction should have organized long before his trial. Demonstrating now, as New York Times Magazine contributor Jay Caspian Kang succinctly puts it, “deforms the stated intentions.” It also comes across as self-serving rather than a righteous stand against injustice.

I say this in light of the more evident challenges that Asian Americans face. We are unfairly pitted against our black and Latino peers as the “model minority” and perceived as perpetual foreigners. The list of such bigoted behavior against Asian Americans is well-documented. Sadly, however, it has also prompted an unnecessary victim mentality—one that now suggests that Liang is an example of how Asian Americans, like black people, suffer from a miscarriage of justice.

Our status as a minority does not automatically give us the right to share in the experience of others who are more heavily affected, as Asia Times contributor George Koo would have us believe. The truth is that Asian Americans, as a whole, are far less likely than blacks to be targeted by law enforcement or incarcerated. We cannot liken the severity of Liang’s conviction to the death of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, whose passings sparked serious conversations on our country’s execution of criminal justice. We cannot say that Liang and Gurley are both victims. Liang killed a black male; Gurley was a black male who was killed.

When I think of incidents in which our system has actually betrayed Asians and Asian Americans, I am immediately reminded of Vincent Chin, whose deadly beating in 1982 by white auto worker Ronald Ebens and his stepson resulted in just a penalty of three years of probation and a fine.

I think of Cau Bich Tran, whose shooting by Officer Chad Marshall in 2003 failed to lead to an indictment. I remember the death of Fong Lee, whose family burst into tears after Officer Jason Andersen was acquitted of using excessive force back in 2006. These are explicit instances in which I question whether Asian lives matter too.

To somehow portray Liang as the unfair target of what was ultimately a standard legal procedure is a disservice to Gurley, Garner, Brown, Chin, Tran, and Lee. We cannot choose to suddenly designate ourselves as a marginalized minority when the merit of the facts in Liang’s case clearly outweigh the connection we have to him as Asian Americans. Liang and I are of the same community, but his particular crusade is not mine.

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Justin Chan is an editorial production associate at The New Yorker. He most recently served as a columnist at Mic, where he explored the media's emasculation of Asian American men and the rise in spending among Asian American youth. You can follow him on Twitter @jchan1109.

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Protecting Freelancers: Policy Innovation at Work


Freelancers Rally

Freelancers Union rally 


In 2012 when I started bringing cases under the New York Labor Law and the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act the hot area was "independent contractor misclassification." Employers in the "on-demand" economy were (mis)classifying their employees as independent contractors to avoid paying overtime or, in some cases, the minimum wage. Employers did not have to buy unemployment insurance, workers compensation, or pay the employer portion of payroll tax (FICA). Over the next few years, almost every player in the on-demand economy would be sued for employee misclassification.

Eventually, companies began to figure out they were better off correctly classifying their workers as employees rather than risking large damage awards. We got our clients a fair deal because we had statutes that provided strong protections in the New York Labor Law (NYLL) and Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

During the years I was busy with employee misclassification cases, another type of client kept trying to retain me. They were photographers, consultants, writers, website developers and many other professionals, some operating as freelancers and some with small businesses. They were not covered by the NYLL or FLSA because they were independent contractors, not employees. Yet they were the victims of wage theft, too.

Their debts were sometimes small ($500) and sometimes quite large ($25,000) but the story was always the same: the freelancer or independent contractor worked, was paid about half their fee, and then the client, sometimes giving excuses, other times just disappearing, never paid the rest. The freelancers who sought me out were not an anomaly: The Freelancers Union estimates that about half of the 54 million freelancers in America in 2014 had trouble getting paid, and that 34% of those who had trouble getting paid were never paid a dime of what they were owed.

It became apparent to me that the lack of practical remedies to freelancer wage theft contributed to the problem. Unlike the landlord, utility company, or other vendors who could simply stop service if they were unpaid, freelancers had no real recourse. As a result, they were paid last, and if money ran out, they were the ones left unpaid. Legal action was impracticable because unlike cases brought under the NYLL and the FLSA, there were no additional damages available as a penalty for non-payment, no attorney's fees, and no liability on behalf of the owner of the employer.

Lawsuits for unpaid wages under $5,000 needed to be in the Small Claims Part of the New York City Civil Court as breach of contract matters. Breach of contract cases in the civil court (up to $25,000) and in the Supreme Court (above $25,000) were subject to expensive filing and service fees, not to mention myriad requirements meant to assure procedural fairness. The freelancer also needed to enforce the judgment themselves, a time consuming and potentially expensive process. The amount of the loss rarely justified the huge legal fees required.

One innovative solution was my new company Indepayment, a comprehensive platform for freelancer debt collection. Indepayment aggregates debts owed to freelancers and independent workers to create a steady stream of cases for commercial collection attorneys and debt collectors who work on volume and collect on contingency. Indepayment operates nationally, and has been growing exponentially since we started collecting debts in June 2015. We're also working with the Freelancers Union to educate freelancers about avoiding non-payment.

The New York City Council has put forward another innovative solution, in the form of a bill, Intro. 1017. Sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander and now supported by 28 Council members, it creates a statutory remedy for freelancer wage theft that provides for double damages, attorneys' fees, and civil penalties which mirror the remedies available under FLSA and the NYLL. The bill requires that freelancers have a contract, and makes it a violation not to pay or to pay after 30 days unless otherwise agreed. If passed into law, these would be significant new protections for those in the growing freelance economy.

Causes of action under the new law could be brought in addition to breach of contract matters in Court. In addition, freelancer wage theft matters are treated as violations of the city Administrative Code adjudicated by the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). Establishing a DCA administrative process alleviates some of the procedural complexity, delays, and costs associated with bringing cases in Supreme Court and Civil Court.

In addition, because the collectability of court judgments is sometimes difficult, the city's enforcement of violations is an important feature. The administrative process and the provisions of the bill that require reporting to the city of civil actions will allow the city to keep detailed records of wage theft recidivists and understand the scope of the wage theft problem in New York City.

Although the bill could go further – for example the NYLL and FLSA have provisions that make the owners of the employers liable for wage theft – it's a great start. Intro. 1017 deserves our support because our innovative and evolving freelance workforce deserves innovative solutions to guard against wage theft and protect its livelihoods.

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Jesse Strauss is an attorney based in New York City and Founder and CEO of Indepayment.

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Shut Down the Criminal Court


courtroom


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No Surprise Uber Drivers Are Protesting


taxi TLC

photo via the NYC TLC


Uber’s New York City drivers continued to rally against the company last week at City Hall — and it was no coincidence that recent reports show most Uber drivers don’t like their jobs.

In a new survey of Uber drivers published this month, less than half said they enjoy driving for Uber. Almost 40 percent of the drivers said they “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” with the survey’s question about whether they were satisfied with Uber.

That survey included drivers from big cities across the country, but we know the major reason why New York Uber drivers are angry — 15 percent fare cuts that have made it impossible for them to make ends meet. Angry drivers here in the city have also called on Uber to stop taking a huge 20 to 25 percent cut of all their fares and add a tipping option to the app.

One might assume that a company that cares about its working-class drivers would take all these concerns seriously and address them immediately.

But Uber has shown its true colors by responding with a PR campaign aimed at convincing drivers that fare cuts are great and they should be happy with what they get.

That kind of callousness should offend all New Yorkers. We have all seen what it’s like to work for a rich company that cares more about the bottom line than the welfare of its workers. Uber’s disregard for its workers should also serve as an important reminder of why numerous driver protections — including strong wage protections — already exist in New York City’s taxi industry.

The fact is that industry regulations — developed over many years by government officials and medallion owners — ensure that taxi drivers never have to face the problems that are forcing Uber’s New York City drivers to protest and even go on strike.

No one can reduce a taxi driver’s fare because that is illegal. The government cannot take up to 25 percent of a taxi driver’s fares because that is illegal.

Additionally, the taxi industry encourages riders to tip generously by offering suggested tip amounts through the payment system mandated within each cab.

Taxi regulations are simple and straightforward. No one can blame Uber drivers for wanting the same protections in the workplace. But who should be blamed for the fact that those protections don’t exist?

The blame should really be shared between Uber and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission - the latter has failed to address this and many other double standards that exist between Uber and the taxi industry.

Since Uber has shown it is unwilling to respect its working-class drivers, even as they continue to protest, the TLC has a moral and legislative duty to act by imposing real regulations that create parity between Uber and the taxi industry.

The TLC was created not only to protect the general public but all of its stakeholders, and over the past several years the TLC has vastly increased driver protections throughout the industry — except when Uber is involved. Uber continues to receive a pass from the TLC in avoiding all of its regulations, including fares, accessibility, driver protections, vehicle choice, branding of cars for public protection, paying a state tax to support the MTA, surge pricing, and more.

Until the TLC creates an even playing field for drivers, the public, and the rest of the for-hire industry, Uber drivers will continue to be dissatisfied and struggle to earn the money they need to support themselves. That’s no longer a claim — it’s a fact.

And as long as Uber ignores drivers and the TLC fails to solve the problem, there is always another option for angry Uber drivers. We would be happy to have them join the taxi industry and gain the same wage protections that yellow cab drivers have enjoyed for so many years.

It looks like the door to Uber’s front office is closed to workers. Ours is open.

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David Beier is the President of the Committee for Taxi Safety. On Twitter @CommTaxiSafety.

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Special Election Shows Need for Democratization


silver seat KALC

Charles Youn, executive director of KALCA, speaks at a press conference


Any good democracy should reflect a society’s diversity in its leadership. The undemocratic way in which the 65th Assembly District special election is unfolding should galvanize all communities, particularly underrepresented ones, to push for reforms and encourage underrepresented New Yorkers to be more civically engaged.

America does not always have accurate and inclusive representation in government. This is especially true in state legislatures. A few weeks ago, a study released by the New American Leaders Project found several distressing trends. Although 38% of the U.S. population identifies themselves as people of color, only 6% of state legislators come from such a background.  Furthermore, the New American Leaders Project’s survey of non-white legislators found that during some of their campaigns, they were actively discouraged from running by their own political party.

This problem is painfully apparent in New York. For the past 40 years, Sheldon Silver ruled over the 65th Assembly District, commonly referred to as a majority-minority district. This district includes Chinatown, a neighborhood that has steadfastly served as the epicenter of growth and opportunity for many Asian immigrants since the 1900s.

Silver is said to have had a vice-like grip on his seat, and only released his hold when the courts forced him to leave upon a federal corruption conviction. His departure and the subsequent special election should have given New Yorkers the opportunity to vote for new candidates who actually reflect their community. However, residents of the district were robbed of that opportunity.

Since the announcement of the special election, the deck was stacked against any possible candidate outside the local political machine, one which Silver still controls. On January 30, despite the protests of the media and good government groups such as Common Cause New York, a special election date of April 19 was announced, which was five months earlier than the strongly suggested September 13 New York State primary date. Just a few hours later, local blogs and newspapers revealed that the Democratic County Committee, a subset of the state Democratic Party, would determine the Democratic nominee for the special election in one week, effectively ending an election just seven days after its start.

The candidate the local county committee selected on February 6 was Alice Cancel, the wife of the Democratic County Committeeman and political club boss of the Lower East Democrats, John Quinn. Cancel has had no qualms praising Silver.

The quick and fixed process prompted one candidate, Yuh-Line Niou, to refuse to be considered for the Democratic line, stating that “this process is not one anyone would have chosen to reflect the diversity of our district, and to be fully democratic.”

The election in April will be a farce, with only one name on the Democratic ballot line in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 8 to 1. Come fall, the Democratic pick will have an incumbent advantage, and Chinatown may once again be represented by someone who has not democratically earned the right to do so.

This is a mockery of American democratic values, and we must all act to ensure it does not happen again.

There are two ways we as concerned citizens can do so. First, push to adopt the policy recommendations from Citizens Union’s 2013 report on political clubs to curb excess influence over institutions like the Democratic County Committee. The report found that the financial and personal ties within and among political clubs, machines, and individual politicians were suspect and strong. For example, during the 2011 federal trial of former City Council member Larry Seabrook, it was discovered that he had used the Northeast Bronx Democratic Club as his personal ATM. To fix this, Citizens Union recommended that a political club’s financial activities be transparent and regulated.

Citizens Union recommends, among other things, defining precisely what constitutes illegal coordination between political clubs and candidates’ campaigns.

Secondly, underrepresented communities must become more civically engaged. During the midterm elections in 2014, Asian-American voter turnout was abysmal—only 4% of the eligible population voted. We can and must do better.

Civic engagement does not start or stop at the polls. Being engaged means joining a community board, voting in primaries, participating in candidate forums, reading political news, and joining organizations that advocate for people’s rights.

What has happened in Chinatown proves that now is the time for our underrepresented communities to get involved and make a difference.

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Serin Choi is the Advocacy Chair for the Korean American League for Civic Action, a non-partisan non-profit organization that advocates for increased Asian leadership in the public sector.

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Safe and Healthy Housing for All New Yorkers


housing march parade

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


I just can't take the mice and the mold anymore.

For years, I have lived in a Staten Island apartment in desperate need of repair. I live there with my daughter, and we've constantly struggled to get our landlord to fix the problems that make our home an unhealthy place to live.

Over the past six years, we've frequently gone without heat and hot water, faced endless mold growing in our cabinets, and suffered rodent infestations that simply won't go away.

We've asked the landlord time and time again to make the repairs to the apartment that we need, but, when he finally does something, he only applies quick fixes. For instance, after we pushed hard for him to replace our moldy cabinets, he finally gave in—but the leak that caused the mold is still there, and it will soon grow again.

Ours is the story of thousands of New York families who suffer dangerous and unhealthy living conditions because of landlords who put profit above people. In my case, the conditions caused by the landlord's failure to make the necessary repairs have made my asthma worse; last week, I had to go to the hospital because of a respiratory infection. And, like any mother, I worry constantly about how our unhealthy apartment is affecting my daughter.

This type of problem afflicts tenants across the city. That's why it's so important that the New York City Council pass an important bill this year, Intro. 543, that addresses the underlying conditions that bad landlords like mine so often fail to address.

Here's what Intro. 543, introduced by lead sponsor Council Member Ritchie Torres, does: in the case that a landlord refuses to address the underlying condition causing a housing violation (for instance, a leak that produces mold), the bill would empower tenants like me to take our claims to housing court.

This is important because, all too often, when landlords finally act to address housing violations, they fail to deal with the physical defect or failure in the building system that causes the violation. An example with which many New Yorkers will be familiar: the landlord who patches the dripping ceiling or paints over mold, but fails to fix the leaky pipe that's producing the problem.

Currently, the city's housing agency (HPD) is only able to investigate up to 50 cases per year related to underlying conditions. The department does not currently have the capacity to fully take on all the cases that exist, which is why tenants like me need the legal recourses provided by this bill.

It's time for landlords to accept responsibility for ensuring that tenants like my family are living in apartments that are safe and healthy.

But landlords who profit enormously off of unhealthy apartments won't act alone. We have to make them, and that takes a change in the law. We need the City Council to pass Intro. 543 as soon as possible. If they don't, too many New Yorkers like me won't have the tools to ensure that our landlords make the repairs we need to make the mice and the mold go away.

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Dulce María Rivera is a member of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community. On Twitter: @maketheroadny.

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Looks Matter, Especially in Public Housing


Looks-Matter-Especially-in-Public-Housing 

Hammel Houses vs. New Affordable Housing; David Schalliol, Affordable Housing in New York


As time marches on, and NYCHA projects stay the same, the sense of public housing as an isolated, stigmatized part of the city has grown. When most NYCHA projects were created between the 1930s and 1960s, boxy red brick apartment houses were pretty typical for a wide range of the city's residents. Since the 1960s, however, the city's affordable and market housing developers and architects have better integrated their towers into existing neighborhoods and experimented with exterior treatments including stone veneers, glazed brick, multi-colored bricks, glass, tiles, metal accents, and much more. Today's affordable housing buildings, in neighborhoods like Melrose in the Bronx, are often as attractive, and often more carefully designed, than unsubsidized apartment buildings.

NYCHA, by contrast, has preserved and renovated its red brick towers, mostly because to do anything else has been prohibitively expensive. In addition, because most NYCHA towers are fifty years or older, NYCHA's capital division is forced to go through a lengthy and expensive historical review process for basic renovation projects even when there is no architectural distinction at all to the towers undergoing renovation. Residents seem equally reluctant to embrace any changes, despite the longstanding sense among many residents that their apartments may be a good deal, but building exteriors are unattractive and isolating.

If we have learned something over the decades it is that curb appeal matters, especially when it comes to affordable and public housing. If NYCHA is going to attract and retain working families in the long term, some updates are long overdue. How housing looks also plays a role in how much pride people feel in their surroundings and how they treat those environments. The institutional appearance of NYCHA arguably discourages pride of place among many residents and visitors alike.

Appearance also has an even more important "other directed" quality that influences the politics and funding of housing. How the city's population as a whole feels about NYCHA is crucial as federal sources of funding, which have provided nearly all of NYCHA's subsidies for eight decades, dry up. Few non-NYCHA residents are eager to foot the bill to preserve the basic brick public housing towers in their neighborhoods, some of which also have serious social and crime issues that detract from neighborhood safety. If NYCHA projects, however, fit in better or enlivened surrounding neighborhoods, city residents as a whole might be more eager to subsidize the system out of their local taxes.

In New York, nationally, and around the globe there are many efforts underway to alter the visuals of subsidized housing. Some of these strategies are worth considering or adapting for NYCHA. The creative approaches featured here share in a tradition of adapting existing towers without displacement of current residents. Many of these adaptations would be expensive, far beyond NYCHA's current budget capacity. The De Blasio administration, rather than NYCHA, could sponsor and pay for a few demonstration renovation projects of NYCHA projects out of the city's capital budget (or the "preservation" budget of the Housing NYC plan) that could point the way to a new look.

New "Skins" for Old Buildings
There are many good reasons to pursue a policy of "re-skinning" or recladding NYCHA buildings with panels of various materials. NYCHA's red brick towers are minimally attractive and expensive to repoint. New "skins" available today, overlaid on top the brick, could provide extra insulation and additional protection from elements. New mechanical systems could also be run beneath or through the new exterior panels thus improving water, heat, electrical, and even internet service to residents. In the Rockaways, for instance, private developers made good use of reskinning to rebrand and redevelop a decayed subsidized project that had been poorly managed by its former owners. This approach could be adapted for NYCHA buildings as well.

Looks-Matter-Especially-in-Public-Housing-2
(L and M Recladding in the Rockaways)

NYCHA, as part of the planning for Sandy Recovery projects, asked some of its participating architects to include with their basic repair plans more ambitious visions. The results are impressive and indicate the adaptability of the current NYCHA inventory—if costs were not such a limiting factor. The images make clear that new surfaces covering these places could work better for residents (in terms of mechanical systems and insulation) as well as make developments more inviting parts of neighborhoods.

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(Red Hook Houses Recladding Proposal, NYCHA Capital Projects Division + KPF, ARUP)

Finding "Lost" Details
Cosmetic changes, at more moderate costs, could deliver some powerful visual results that might be welcomed by both residents and neighbors alike. The Dearborn Homes on Chicago's South Side, for instance, have been renovated and given appealing Georgian details. These alterations would be particularly welcome in residential areas of Queens and the Bronx where NYCHA towers often form a strong contrast to surrounding homes and apartment buildings.

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(Dearborn Houses in Chicago Before and After, HPZS Architects)

Rediscovering Retail
The best of the early housing projects—First Houses, Williamsburg Houses, and Harlem River Houses—included stores and community facilities open and connected to their surroundings. Federal rules, and other factors, led to the elimination of most stores on NYCHA grounds from the 1940s to the 1960s, when most projects were built. The absence of vibrant street life and commercial, and the security stores provide for pedestrians, has been a major criticism of NYCHA design.

Today's NYCHA leaders, for a mix of financial and social reasons, are considering the redesign of ground floor spaces with new stores that could add liveliness and much needed revenue.  The example of Stuyvesant Town could serve NYCHA well, where new ground floor retail has helped perk up public spaces for a middle-income complex. More stores and street life on and around NYCHA might go a long way to creating safer public spaces as well.

Looks-Matter-Especially-in-Public-Housing-5(Stuyvesant Town New Café at Ground Level; David Schalliol, Affordable Housing in New York)

Signage and Balconies
New exterior adaptations have the potential not only to brighten up drab exteriors but also contribute directly to NYCHA's financial bottom line. The creators of public housing in the 1930s disliked commercial signage in residential areas, but today's urban neighborhoods are often enlivened by signs of all types. Architect Matthias Altwicker proposes that new exterior signage, some with advertising, could enliven the building exteriors. Some might hang off existing walls, while other signs might be part of new balcony systems. 

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(Commercial Additions to Typical Red Brick Towers, Matthias Altwicker Architect)

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(System of Simple Applied Structures to provide sun shading for all types of orientation, advertising surfaces, and adding balconies where floor plans permitted.)

Signage could also be applied to new structures rising on NYCHA grounds. FEMA is providing money for moving boilers and other mechanical systems above the flood zones. Most of the architects commissioned by NYCHA to create hurricane resistant buildings have simply matched the red brick boxes to their surroundings. Altwicker proposes, instead, that the new brick buildings instead become lighted beacons in their neighborhoods. These could provide a sense of orientation for the areas, brighten dark areas at night, and potentially feature community news and events along with space for advertisements to generate revenue.

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(Elevated Mechanical Buildings as new "Lightboxes" by Matthias Altwicker Architect)

The examples of design strategies for NYCHA are provided here to get the city and NYCHA residents thinking about ways of refreshing dated housing projects; this quick set of examples is not designed to be an exclusive list of options. Around the globe and in New York, however, designers and housing authorities are giving new life to aging public housing projects. New York should join in this tradition of renewal to make a more livable city—for both NYCHA residents and those in surrounding neighborhoods.

*This is part three of a three-part series on NYCHA from Nicholas D. Bloom and partners*
Read part one: Rebuilding NYCHA: A Fresh Look
Read part two: Goodbye to 'First Generation' NYCHA

***
Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthias Altwicker are Co-Curators of the current exhibition at the Hunter College, East Harlem Gallery, Affordable Housing in New York.

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Goodbye to 'First Generation' NYCHA


Goodbye-to-First-Generation-NYCHA

photo: David Schalliol, from Affordable Housing in New York 


Should NYCHA give up its controversial plan to generate revenue by adding mixed-income 50/50 percent (market/affordable) buildings at the Wyckoff Gardens and Holmes Towers public housing developments? Many residents and activists at these two sites dedicated for "infill" as part of NYCHA's NextGen Neighborhood initiative remain leery at the prospect of change, even if it means they won't get the renovated apartments and new community facilities that market-rate development can partially bankroll.

Establishing a precedent for some market-rate housing on NYCHA grounds at these developments, despite resistance, remains one promising avenue to improving both public housing apartments and NYCHA's bottom-line. The fees from market development won't pay for a new utopia, but they could make a major difference in long-term quality of life. New York has, after all, finally reached the end of the compromised housing model we should refer to as "First Generation" NYCHA. Dramatic changes are long overdue, and probably essential, if NYCHA is to remain desirable housing for the city's working class.

NYCHA has made its reputation on making the best of difficult situations rather than building utopia. The founders of the New York City Housing Authority in the 1930s, such as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and settlement house leader Mary Simkhovitch, wanted public housing to clear the millions of apartments in tenement slums. When money was no object during the New Deal they built America's greatest and most enduring public housing projects: Harlem River Houses and Williamsburg Houses. But when the press and federal government found out how much this high-quality housing cost, NYCHA was forced to economize on everything (such as no closet doors!) and it began to mass produce red brick, often bleak, "towers in the park" across the city's neighborhoods.

Goodbye-to-First-Generation-NYCHA-2-images
(l-r: Harlem River House (1930s), Rangel Houses (1950s); David Schalliol, Affordable Housing in New York)

Even more important compromises followed. The founders had aimed for mostly working class families whose rents covered expenses, and they carefully screened applicants to choose those who would make peaceable, rent-paying tenants. But as the years went on federal directives and public pressure forced the agency to accept poorer families. The number of families on public assistance, many with multiple social and family issues, skyrocketed by the 1970s. NYCHA family incomes, even those with jobs, began to lag well behind those of the rest of the city. Weak rental returns were papered over with federal subsidies, but social problems in many projects became severe.

Behind the scenes NYCHA leaders pushed back on federal rules as best they could, varying building heights, including community centers, adding more maintenance staff, constructing higher-income developments financed with city money (rather than federal), creating a housing police, building on vacant land, and prioritizing working families. But Robert Moses, whose top priority was slum clearance, and federal bureaucrats, who provided most of the funding (and still do today), called most of the shots. As a result, First Generation NYCHA (today's 178,000 units) became isolated physically and socially, with a more racially segregated population and fewer economic opportunities than the city as a whole. A quarter of NYCHA's tenants regularly fail to pay their (low) rents and crime is much higher on and around NYCHA projects than almost anywhere else in the city.

Billions in federal dollars have been spent to maintain these complexes, now aging en masse. But today they suffer from years of federal cutbacks that began around the year 2000, which have led to deferred maintenance and other reductions in service. Energy and labor costs are out of line with rent/subsidy sources. Still fully occupied and low rent, NYCHA projects are about the best outcome that could be expected from a set of nearly debilitating compromises.

Goodbye-to-First-Generation-NYCHA-2-images-2
(Polo Grounds Maintenance Crews; David Schalliol, Affordable Housing in New York)

Saving the system requires dramatic changes. While NYCHA's early leaders who built these places always intended to provide quality permanent homes, they would not endorse the notion that what they built should be preserved for another century without alterations or adaptations. They built what they could, where they could, as well as they could given limited funds. But they rarely built for the ages and their ideas evolved continuously based upon program, requirements, neighborhood opposition, and more.

Nor would NYCHA's founders endorse the notion that public housing or new buildings proposed in the NextGen plan should be reserved only for the poor, as is the aim of many current critics. To the contrary, they believed in a working-class system that was mostly self-supporting and self-policing. NYCHA's founders endorsed the notion of mixed-income public housing projects and would find the resistance of today's residents to income mixture unwise from both a social and financial perspective. NYCHA had a much better rent collection record, and projects were safer, when the system housed a wider income range of New Yorkers.

Today's residents and housing advocates are right to demand a voice in the process, and maybe even priorities for new apartments that rise on the grounds. But they also need to accept that financially and physically First Generation NYCHA is unsustainable without new sources of non-governmental revenue. No federal, state, or local official is promising to deliver the billions needed for additional renovation. Mayor de Blasio has committed only $300 million of the city's money to new roofs; federal operating and capital subsidies, which still provide the majority of NYCHA funding, have been in freefall since 2000; and Governor Cuomo's budget proposal provides $20 billion for new affordable housing and nothing for NYCHA.

Rethinking NYCHA design, moreover, is long overdue. The plain brick buildings are, by and large, poorly integrated with their surrounding neighborhoods. The vast open spaces surrounding most towers are often underutilized, unsafe, or unnecessary, such as parking lots in Manhattan. Many NYCHA residents recognize that their complexes could use more income diversity; more units, especially for seniors who could be moved out of larger family apartments; new community facilities; and more stores to create variety and safety, through additional eyes on the street. Yet the cash to pay for these upgrades, including renovation of their own apartments, is more likely to come from a mix of market-rate and affordable development rather than new subsidies alone.

First Generation NYCHA was a compromise solution that seems to have run its course. Housing advocates need to be honest with NYCHA residents about the realistic versus imaginary paths to a better system. Infill isn't the only option for rebuilding NYCHA, and NYCHA leaders are pursuing every source of funding they can find, but residents should take advantage of the fact that New York's overheated real estate market could help fund the renovation of their buildings. It is time for NYCHA residents to make peace with city leaders, and begin to welcome a mix of market dwellings with subsidized ones, so that another generation can benefit from public housing.

*This is part two of a three-part series on NYCHA from Nicholas D. Bloom and partners*
Read part one: Rebuilding NYCHA: A Fresh Look
Read part three: 
Looks Matter, Especially in Public Housing

***
Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner are Co-Curators of the current exhibition at the Hunter College, East Harlem Gallery, Affordable Housing in New York and Co-Editors of the anthology by the same name available here.

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Rebuilding NYCHA: A Fresh Look


Rebuilding-NYCHA-A-Fresh-Look

David Schalliol, from Affordable Housing in New York


Over the past two decades the pages of New York City's dailies have been filled with a growing chorus of complaints about declining conditions in the New York City Housing Authority's vast system (178,000 apartments). Multiple reports by city officials, activists, and NYCHA's own metrics, have highlighted problems such as slow elevators, leaks, broken windows, delayed repairs, and unlocked lobby doors. Two decades of cutbacks have indeed reduced quality of life for residents when compared to the robust federal capital and operating funds of the 1990s. Fewer skilled staff, old buildings, higher energy costs, and late rents are just a few of the challenges faced by today's NYCHA administrators. 

It is easy to lose sight, in the face of so much bad news, of the reason why New York has these maintenance problems while so many cities do not: NYCHA and city leaders are preserving large scale high-rise public housing against the national tide. Federal capital and operating subsidies, which continue to provide the bulk of NYCHA's revenues after rents, have been slashed. Most American big cities took the comparatively easier road of knocking down aging towers, even if it meant losing thousands of permanent, low-cost, subsidized apartments.

A new series of Geographic Information System (GIS) maps created by NYCHA document capital projects across the city and provide a revealing portrait of what is working today, and what still needs to be done, to upgrade "First Generation" NYCHA for the half a million New Yorkers who still live within its walls.

Rebuilding-NYCHA-A-Fresh-Look-map

The maps, only a few of which are shown here, vividly illustrate that NYCHA is slowly rebuilding the thousands of aging towers in the system. The maps, and accompanying spreadsheets, indicate that many developments during the past decade or so have benefitted from new elevators, roofs, brickwork, parapets, electrical upgrades, security cameras, and updated mechanical systems.

NYCHA's Capital Projects Division oversees and designs the various projects, but private contracting firms, selected through a competitive bidding process, do the construction on a for-profit basis. Rebuilding NYCHA - where 400,000 New Yorkers live - is not just about housing, then, but it is also a public/private partnership that has pumped billions into the local economy. Hundreds of NYCHA residents have also gained work experience through these renovation projects.

The individual capital items are necessarily rendered as small icons on these maps but on the ground each icon represents a big and expensive undertaking because each individual NYCHA housing project is so large. A single icon on the map, for instance, usually involves multiple roofs, elevators, and brick repointing efforts at one project. These capital projects, moreover, are distinct from the millions of smaller repairs every year undertaken by NYCHA maintenance employees as part of everyday maintenance.

These large capital projects are not just being started, as the maps indicated, but also completed in a timelier manner than in the past. NYCHA has picked up the pace on its design, procurement, and contracting process. The NYC Stimulus Tracker, new staff and procedures, a recession (making NYCHA contracts more desirable for private construction firms that once dragged out the process), and public scrutiny are some of the factors in this speed up.

Rebuilding-NYCHA-A-Fresh-Look-map-2-b

The maps also speak to baseline, long-term priorities: keeping out rain; delivering heat, electrical and water service; and installing safer elevators. The maps are thus full of roof, brickwork, parapets, and mechanical projects (plumbing, electric, and elevators) rather than apartment rehabilitation. Many residents, as reported in the newspapers, would likely prefer that NYCHA place an immediate emphasis on total apartment rehabs so that their lives improve now; the hundreds of thousands of monthly maintenance calls indicate a large, and possibly growing, number of defects per apartment.

From a long-term perspective, however, and in the current pinched budget situation, the strategy of securing building envelopes first makes sense. Expensive apartment rehabs, and even smaller patch jobs, often make good press, but they can be quickly undone, and often are, by a faulty heating pipe or leaky wall. Most NYCHA residents are therefore likely to remain dissatisfied with the state and number of defects in their aging apartments in the short term even with new roofs or brickwork protecting them in the years to come. Doing the right thing—using funds in a strategic way—thus remains politically risky when so much attention is focused on apartment repairs today.

This basic strategy of maintaining buildings envelopes is sound, but it is fair to say that even this prioritization of scarce resources is not guaranteed to secure NYCHA's future as a housing provider. NYCHA estimates that it needs an additional $17 billion in capital funds just for the next five years. A longer horizon on capital needs reveals an even larger capital need. Parsons Brinckerhoff, the global engineering and design firm, in 2011 estimated that NYCHA would face $30 billion in basic capital costs from 2011 to 2026—a figure far in excess of what was then or is currently available from city, state, or federal sources combined. When a roof project at Pink Houses costs over $37 million, an elevator project Roosevelt Houses demands $4 million, and brickwork at Glenwood Houses comes in at over $42 million—just a couple examples from hundreds—it is easy to see how NYCHA could still have billions in needed capital repairs over the coming decades. The cost of construction of all kind is expensive in New York and NYCHA is subject to both market pressure and federal labor regulations.

Were NYCHA to generate similar style maps using icons to show the additional major capital projects needed, these maps of needed work would be far more crowded than the maps of ongoing capital projects today. The required work for one housing project, Marble Hill Houses (1682 apartments) is provided as an example below of the amount of money that would be needed to upgrade just one project from top to bottom. The figures from the 2011 Physical Needs Assessment indicate that renovating Marble Hill to a good state would absorb a significant share of an entire year's worth of NYCHA's federal capital budget (to be spent system-wide) despite counting only about 1% of NYCHA's total apartments. Marble Hill's needs, moreover, are fairly typical for large NYCHA developments.

Rebuilding-NYCHA-A-Fresh-Look-table

The maps and data sampled here answer many questions about what is being done to secure NYCHA's future, the locations of major projects, and what it costs to just partially rebuild America's largest public housing system. The maps do not, however, answer more worrisome questions about future funding and projects. This uncertainty is why NYCHA leaders continue to pursue new routes to renovation such as converting traditional public housing units to Section 8 and generating revenues from new market-rate housing on public housing grounds. Many solutions, and many big ones, are going to be needed to secure this housing for another generation.

*This is the first of a three-part series on NYCHA from Nicholas D. Bloom and partners*
Read part two: Goodbye to 'First Generation' NYCHA
Read part three: Looks Matter, Especially in Public Housing

***
Nicholas Dagen Bloom is Co-Curator of the current exhibition at the Hunter College, East Harlem Gallery, Affordable Housing in New York and Co-Editor of the anthology by the same name, available here.

***
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'New York Values' in Historical Perspective


ted cruz

Ted Cruz (photo: @SenTedCruz)


Stereotyping New York in political debate
In a Republican presidential debate in January, Senator Ted Cruz tried to score points, saying of Donald Trump, "Donald comes from New York and he represents New York values." Cruz went on to say that "everyone in the country knows exactly what New York values are and I've got to say they're not Iowa values or New Hampshire values." New Yorkers are "socially liberal and pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage and focus on money and the media," he said.

Cruz repeated the message, with variations, in his campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Senator Cruz was using an old political gambit, playing on stereotypes of New York (particularly New York City) as excessively liberal, corrupt, money-grubbing, and out of step with the rest of America.
New Yorkers get their backs up when their city or state is stigmatized or attacked.

After the January debate, Governor Andrew Cuomo retorted that Senator Cruz "doesn't know what New York values are because New York is in many ways the epitome of what formed this nation and what keeps it strong....We do believe in E Pluribus Unum, out of many come one, and his rhetoric is the exact opposite." Several other prominent New Yorkers weighed in, including Donald Trump, who suggested that New York's heroic response to 9/11 revealed its deepest values.

Cruz's comments provoked many other New Yorkers to express their opinions (mostly positive) about their city. The New York Times asked a cross-section of city residents their opinion on what constituted "New York values" a few days after Cruz's attack. Their responses: New Yorkers are diverse, friendly, ambitious, curious, tolerant, competitive, impatient, hustling and determined -- "we keep our heads high, no matter what."

A New York Daily News front page on January 15 put it more directly with a headline of "DROP DEAD, TED."

New Yorkers have seen it before
Cruz is certainly not the first politician to try to cast New York as a place of wanton ways with values at odds with those of the rest of the nation.

Republican attacks on New York Governor Al Smith when he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1928 focused on his Catholic religion, opposition to prohibition, and subservience to the New York City Democratic organization Tammany Hall, all allegedly emblematic of his hometown, New York City. Smith's campaign theme song, "The Sidewalks of New York," and his "New York accent" in campaign speeches confirmed how ingrained New York City's culture and folkways were.

In 1960, conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater expressed a wish that "we could tell New York to kiss our [expletive] and we could really start a conservative party." In 1963, he suggested the nation would be better off if the east coast could be sawed off and floated out to sea. But everyone understood that New York, with its liberal politics, cultural influence and economic power, was his main bugaboo.

The next year, Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination over New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whom Goldwater labeled a liberal New York spendthrift. His supporters sniped that Rockefeller was immoral for having divorced his first wife and remarried, something they vaguely insinuated had to do with loose New York morals.

Historical views of "New York values"
Fending off attacks is easier than defining precisely what New York's values are. That's no surprise, given New York's long history, complexity, and our proclivity for vigorous debate among ourselves.

In 1939, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia assailed critics who asserted that his city was "a money mart...a synonym for Wall Street...New Yorkers are impolite." New York is "a warm-hearted and generous community," he insisted. But with a touch of that New York pride bordering on arrogance that can irritate outsiders, the mayor added that his city was so far superior to others that "we could afford to stop for the next twenty years and we would still be slightly ahead of the procession."

Historian Milton Klein wrote in 1978 that New Yorkers could be thought of as "cosmopolitan Americans: energetic...materialistic and brash but also convivial, humane, tolerant and idealistic. That one state alone should be able to encompass in itself so many of the virtues and limitations of the American people is a measure of New York's unique role in the nation's history."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a statement to the 9/11 Commission in 2003, eloquently described his city's cosmopolitan pre-eminence:

To people around the world, New York City embodies what makes this nation great. That's a function of our status as the world's financial capital, driven not only by Wall Street but [also] our international prominence in such fields as broadcasting, the arts, entertainment and medicine. Such is New York's importance that to a great extent, as goes its economy, so goes the country's. If Wall Street is destroyed, Main Street will suffer. Beyond that, New York embraces the intellectual and religious freedom and cultural diversity that makes us truly the world's second home. We are a magnet for the talented and ambitious from every corner of the globe. In short, we embody the strengths of America's freedom.

Governor Mario Cuomo (1983-1995) saw enlightened, progressive public policies as New York's defining trait. He defined "the New York Idea" as "government using its resources to help create private sector growth, then requiring those who benefit from that growth to share some part of it so that hope and opportunity are extended to those who have not been as fortunate."

Andrew Cuomo, the current governor, emphasizes that New Yorkers are exceptionally energetic, innovative, determined, and resilient. "At every difficult moment in our nation's history, New York has emerged as...the progressive leader in the nation," he explained in his inaugural address in 2011. "In New York, we may have big problems, but we confront them with big solutions," he said in his State-of-the State message the next year. He often includes in his speeches a quotation from essayist E.B. White: "New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village, the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up."

Two sets of "New York values" seem to stand out
Of course, historians may differ on what New York's most important values are. But looking back over our history, two sets of values seem to stand out.

One is openness, inclusion, and tolerance. Since colonial times when the Dutch controlled the city, the emphasis has been on diversity, valuing individual differences, letting people alone, and providing opportunity for work, advancement, and getting ahead.

New York has been open, welcoming, accommodating, and supportive of newcomers. Over time, more immigrants have come in through New York than any other city. Our city and state have been at the forefront of social justice campaigns and civil rights reforms. For instance, the NAACP was founded in New York City in 1909 and New York passed the nation's first state civil rights law, in 1945. New York City probably has the most diverse population of any major city in the world.

A second is optimism and resilience. New Yorkers are undeterred by setbacks, springing back from adversity and continuing forward progress. It dates back at least to the origins of the state. The Revolutionary New York provincial congress were rebels-on the run, moving from New York City to White Plains to Fishkill to Kingston ahead of advancing British troops. They finished hastily drafting New York's first state constitution in April 1777.

When the British threatened Kingston, the new government became a government-on-the run, simply dispersing, reassembling later at Poughkeepsie, and keeping the fledgling state intact. The first governor, George Clinton, calmly took the oath of office in August 1777 and then hurried off to lead a battle against the enemy where he barely escaped capture.

New Yorkers keep going and are known for against-the-odds triumphs. For instance, mockery and stonewalling by the power structure inspired New York's great women's rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton on to more tenacious campaigning. Denied the right to vote, she defiantly ran for Congress from New York City in 1868, losing but making a point about women's political stature. Jackie Robinson was undeterred by racist taunts and threats and became the first black man to play professional baseball, with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and later an inspirational civil rights leader.

The New York City Fire Department mourned its dead after 9/11 and then got right back to work, creatively revising its mission, policies, and training to meet the new threat of terrorism.

New York City not only survived the attacks but came back more resilient and stronger than ever.

The debate over "New York values" is likely to continue
New York mirrors the nation in its complexity and resists tidy categorization. Its values are hard to pin down but its history is rightly a source of inspiration and pride, with tolerance and resilience at the core.

Activist, writer, and New York City First Lady, Chirlane McCray, refuted Ted Cruz by citing the city's steadfastness in challenging times."That fighting spirit, that gut instinct to join together in times of hardship, that refusal to leave behind the most vulnerable among us -- these are the values that have defined New Yorkers from the very beginning."

As the presidential campaign moves along, we can expect to hear more about "New York values." When we do, we need to keep historical insights and perspectives in mind.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne lives in Guilderland, New York. He is the author of The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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'Making A Murderer' Flaws All Around Us


making a murderer

photo via Making A Murderer on Twitter


The Netflix documentary "Making A Murderer" challenges the moral core of our criminal justice system: that the police and prosecutors are objective and unbiased. The film follows Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison for rape before being exonerated, then arrested for murder two years later, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. The highly questionable police methods—a key piece of evidence miraculously appears; an improbable confession is coerced from a developmentally delayed adolescent—and the glaring conflicts of interest of many of the participants will infuriate any fair-minded viewer.

The criminal justice system's legitimacy is founded on our secular faith in unbiased police-work, forensic science, and truth-seeking prosecutors. However, many of these pillars are structurally unsound, as supported by reams of scientific studies and the wisdom of leading observers.

The problems with forensic science were first exposed systematically in a National Academy of Sciences report in 2009, but the legal system has been slow to incorporate its findings. Official misconduct of the type suggested in Making A Murderer is not isolated to small towns in Wisconsin. Alex Kozinski, one of America's foremost jurists and scholars, and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, has recently written an opus which probes these problems in depth. And Kozinksi is no liberal; he was appointed by Ronald Reagan.

Take confessions. It is unfathomable to most of us, but it is not unusual for people under duress to confess to crimes they did not commit. And for minors sweating under the bright lights, their inherent anxiety and propensity for pleasing authorities, coupled with the various ruses, all legal, which the police can employ, render them easy prey. New Yorkers cannot forget that the Central Park Five (teenagers at the time) falsely confessed and spent several years in prison before being exonerated.

Eyewitness testimony is also subject to manipulations and the plasticity of human memory. In Steven Avery's first case the victim mistakenly identified him, after several inappropriate prompts from the police. And misidentification is even more likely when victims and perpetrators are of different races, an expected occurrence in multicultural communities like New York City. A New York State Bar Association study found misidentification to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Numerous expert panels have outlined model procedures for police to use when investigating eyewitness testimony and the NYPD should incorporate these findings.

High tech forensic science, despite its aura of infallibility, is less than perfect and many familiar methods have been tossed on the junk pile. Bite mark analysis, arson science, fiber and hair analysis, are among those that are now discredited as completely lacking in scientific validity. The Justice Department and FBI have acknowledged that evidence presented by an elite forensic unit over a two-decade period was based on methods now recognized as invalid.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office is, however, disregarding the scientific consensus and fighting tooth and nail to continue using bite mark evidence. In contrast, the new Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson, recently moved to have an arson-murder conviction overturned, in part due to now discredited "arson science," and Mr. Thompson's office is garnering national attention for its commitment to review cases and rectify wrongful convictions.

To a prosecutor, the most important bit of data is his or her conviction rate, and the resultant zeal to convict at all costs detours our system away from objectivity towards something like a witch hunt. Prosecutors routinely withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense. As Justice Kozinski puts it, "there is an epidemic of Brady violations [duty to disclose any vital evidence] in the land."

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, official misconduct was a factor in 45% of false convictions. In Orange County (CA) the district attorney's office is rocked with scandal after revelations that the police and prosecutors colluded in a decades long campaign of frame-ups and perjury. And in Brooklyn, as noted above, the new district attorney has begun dealing with the fallout from years of dubious tactics used by his predecessor, Charles Hynes.

This short list of prosecutorial abuses and junk science is only a glimpse at the problem. To give some depth, consider that one study in a prestigious journal estimated that 4.1% of all persons on death row could be exonerated. With roughly 3,000 people on death row now, about 120 persons sentenced to die may be innocent. If this rate of wrongful convictions is extended to the 1.5 million persons in federal and state prisons, 61,500 persons could be declared innocent, set free, and have their criminal records erased.

Though Steven Avery was not rich he had a competent defense team, yet still could not prevail (I am not claiming he is innocent, but that his trial was a travesty and he should not have been found guilty based on its proceedings.) But for poor people who cannot afford a private attorney, woefully understaffed and underfunded public defenders are their only option. That is why innocent people take plea bargains; without an effective defense they have no chance of winning. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 10% of exonerees pleaded guilty, despite their innocence, to avoid a trial.

There is already a broad consensus that we send too many people to prison, for too long, and for behavior (e.g., drug use, sex work, nuisance offences) that should not be criminalized. Beyond that, we must ensure that police and prosecutors use valid methods to gather evidence and present that against the accused. The public election of prosecutors must be revisited to avoid the sort of uncontested transfer of power that occurred in the Bronx last year.

Finally, the New York State Court system recently issued rules enabling video recording of courtroom proceedings and these should be interpreted as liberally as possible to ensure that a Making A Murderer type of injustice can't happen here.

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Christopher Beall works at a criminal justice nonprofit in the Bronx and is on Twitter @JailedintheUSA.

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