Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




The Assembly Must Act to Prevent Wrongful Conviction

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The author, Yusef Salaam, middle, & other members of the Central Park 5 (photo: @venusinorbit)

We were interrogated for over 30 hours. We were accused, threatened, lied to, unable to eat or drink. All of this culminated in severe physical and emotional exhaustion and eventually prompted some of us - teenagers at the time - to provide false confessions to the infamous attack of the Central Park jogger.

Almost none of this interrogation process was video-recorded. Instead, the jury saw video-snippets of what appeared to be damning confessions; not the hours of coercion or the details of the crime that police were feeding us and demanding that we include in the well-rehearsed video "confessions." Although I did not provide a signed or video-taped confession, the police and prosecution claimed that I had offered an admission implicating myself in the crime. I made no such statement, but because there was not video capturing our interrogations from start to finish, the truth was buried. The jury never saw what led to Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Antron McCray, all teenagers, to falsely confess on tape. And as a result all of us – the Central Park Five – were wrongfully convicted.

The system failed us, but now New York can enact simple and practical changes in police procedure to ensure that false confession does not result in additional wrongful convictions. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie should use his leadership to pass A8157 out of his chamber. This bipartisan bill, which the Senate has already passed, would address two of the root causes of wrongful conviction in New York and nationally: false confession and misidentification. The bill would require police to video-record interrogations from start to finish and would provide law enforcement with the necessary training and resources to implement eyewitness identification practices that have been scientifically proven to protect against misidentification.

If the camera had been rolling throughout our interrogation, there might not have been the false confessions, and there would have been a record of the fact that I did not offer any "admission." But the phenomena of false confession leading to wrongful conviction is not limited to the Central Park Five; false confession played a role in almost half of New York's wrongful convictions that were proven by DNA evidence. In fact, false confessions or misidentification were contributing factors in nearly all of New York's 29 wrongful convictions that eventually resulted in DNA exonerations. And keep in mind that DNA exonerations only represent a small share of wrongful conviction cases. Physical evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing that can prove innocence is only available in a small percentage of cases, yet the contributing factors that led to the DNA exonerations – eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, etc. – are present in many cases.

In addition to protecting the innocent, A8157 would also strengthen public safety. The real perpetrator who raped the Central Park jogger, Matias Reyes, went on to commit three additional rapes and one murder. In New York's 29 DNA exonerations, 11 real perpetrators were identified. Five of those real perpetrators committed 11 additional violent crimes, which included three rapes, six murders and two other violent crimes.

With the legislative session in overtime, I implore Speaker Heastie and the Assembly to pass A8157. Lawmakers have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that no one else in our great state has to endure the horror of wrongful conviction.

Yusef Salaam is a member of the Central Park Five and was wrongfully convicted of rape and assault.

Certificate Programs Offer Opportunity for At-Risk Youth

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Brooklyn Army Terminal (photo: @NYCEDC)

Today, there are many problems facing disadvantaged New Yorkers but one of the most pressing is the large share of youth who are not transitioning well. This is most apparent with black boys who experience a disproportionate share of suspensions and have low high school graduation rates. Indeed, in New York City, only 28 percent of black males complete high school on time. This weak school progress, however, is not limited to black boys and is so pervasive that New York City has initiated a number of alternative high schools attended by youth who are significant credits behind and often older than eighteen years of age. It is reflected in the almost 200,000 youths, 17 to 24 years old, who are neither in school nor in paid employment.   

What can be done? City school chancellor Carmen Farina has instituted policy changes to dramatically reduce the number of school suspensions. As I wrote earlier this year, policies that reduce suspensions will not be very effective if they ignore an important source of anti-social behavior: often chaotic and sometimes abusive home environments. In another initiative, Farina announced that General Electric Corporation will provide funding to support Career and Technical Education (CTE) pilot programs at ten schools. CTE programs link high school coursework to community college occupational programs.

While CTE programs can be effective, certificate programs can be very beneficial for a large share of the most at-risk students. Certificates are recognition of completion of a course of study based on a specific field. They differ from industry-based certifications and licenses which typically involve passing an examination to prove a specific competency or completing an apprenticeship. By contrast, certificate programs take place entirely in the classroom.

A comprehensive report began, “In America, the postsecondary certificate has become a cost-effective tool for increasing postsecondary education attainment and gainful employment.” The survey involved pointed to studies that found certificates of at least one year provided a wage premium identical to Associate’s degrees—almost 40 percent for women and around 20 percent for men.

While the average certificate of less than one year has more limited value, this is not true in all cases. For example, police and protective services certificates are predominantly short-term and earned by men, but exceed the average 27 percent wage premium for male certificate holders. Certificates in business and office management are predominantly short-term and earned by women, but exceed the earnings of the median female certificate holder.

Nationally, public colleges award half of all certificates. However, in large cities where many at-risk students reside, public community colleges award only one-third of certificates; less than five percent in Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The extremes go from New York City, where community colleges award only 1.5 percent of certificates, to Chicago and Detroit, where two-thirds are awarded by the community colleges.

This evidence indicates that the CUNY system is an outlier and is ill-serving adolescents who are most at risk. CUNY’s neglect leaves many with no choice but to seek certificate programs in the for-profit sector. These schools have been demonized for their high failure rates and level of indebtedness many of their students experience. Yet they do have strengths that other institutions lack. The education sociologist James Rosenbaum suggests “that many for-profits have developed good counseling departments that help student not only with their academic goals, but also with their economic and social problems…They put resources into counselors and they’re much better at retaining students than community colleges.” A recent New York City study contends that the best for-profit schools offer real opportunity.

At-risk students too often must navigate the for-profit world after leaving school and many will make uninformed selections of schools and/or programs. Certainly, if the CUNY system would dramatically expand its certificate offerings this problem could be ameliorated. In addition, if high schools form partnerships with best-practice for-profits, at-risk students can be channeled into the best schools and the most appropriate programs. Given how valuable these links would be for the for-profits, high schools could negotiate very favorable conditions, enabling students to avoid high debt burdens while gaining valuable occupational skills.

For many educators, the ideal is academic learning – meaning a four-year college education – for all. Disadvantaged youth, however, may do better in the long run if we prioritize better and more immediate pathways into the labor market. At a time when 36 million American workers who attended college did not complete a degree, certificates are piecemeal, attainable, bite-size educational awards that can add substantially to postsecondary completion.

Robert Cherry is Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.

Albany Must Keep the Charter Cap

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Council Member Dromm, the author, with his IDNYC (photo: William Alatriste)

Earlier this year, the New York City Council passed my resolution urging the state legislature to keep the cap on charter schools. That was nothing new: Council Members have long showed their opposition to raising the cap. But, with recent efforts by powerful special interests, including more than $13 million spent in lobbying and campaign ads, we need to remind New York why raising the cap is not only unnecessary, but also harmful to our public school children.

First, there is the capacity question. Charter schools have 2,500 unfilled seats in New York City. In addition, current charter agreements could allow for more than 27,000 additional authorized seats. In other words, these charter schools already are not handling their assigned share of students, and that burdens crowded public schools, making it more difficult for those schools to provide quality education.

Second, charter schools are not required to serve students who transfer to or join schools mid-year because of disciplinary measures or because of a family's choice. They also do not serve nearly the same amount of students with special needs as public schools. This means that when the school year starts, charters receive funding for a certain number of students yet actually end up teaching fewer than they are budgeted for. They then pocket the remainder and can boast lower class sizes while public schools again shoulder the burden.

Finally, the Center for Popular Democracy reported that New York stood to lose over $54 million to charter school-related fraud in 2014 alone. Audits can help uncover instances of fraud, mishandling of funds, conflicts of interest within governing boards, and a number of other troubling findings, yet charter schools largely oppose efforts to increase transparency. The State Comptroller's attempt to audit charter schools has already been foiled at every turn, meaning New Yorkers are left in the dark about how exactly our public dollars are spent.

Meanwhile, more than $5 billion in state money is owed to our traditional public schools to provide every child access to a "sound basic education" per the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling. Forty-four percent of all schools in New York City are overcrowded. The City's Independent Budget Office reports that most schools are at 102 percent capacity or more, and 88 percent of the city's charter schools are co-located within a district school, adding to the space crunch.

Co-located charter schools, by the way, are an exercise in inequality: privately run schools, with access to both private and public funds, that are taking resources from underfunded district schools. What does this mean for the social climate in these schools? Many students feel, and rightfully so, that district schools and their students are not valued the way they should be.

It is sensible to provide the money and attention owed to our public schools to keep them strong. Charter schools already divert resources from the majority of students, who attend public schools. Charter schools do not serve our children, especially the most needy, with enough accountability to justify increasing their share of funding.

All children deserve an education system that celebrates their potential by giving them the space and funding necessary to achieve educational excellence. The raising of the charter cap would be damaging to our public school system in terms of morale, space, funding, and overall quality. Leaders in Albany should finish their legislative session without altering the cap. Instead, it is time to ensure a feasible means of success for public schools by giving them the focus they need and not investing in a private enterprise that has yet to fulfill its promise to New Yorkers.

Daniel Dromm is the Education Committee Chair of the New York City Council.

MTA Success, Challenges Necessitate Cooperation on New Capital Plan

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MTA work (photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

There is general agreement among New Yorkers that something must be done about the city’s transit system. Both MTA president Thomas Prendergast and Straphangers’ Campaign staff attorney Gene Russianoff have raised the specter of the state of chaos and disrepair into which the system fell in the 1970s and 1980s as a possibility, should the political echelon not get its act together.

Yet the challenges that the MTA faces today are far different from those of decades past. Ridership is surging, not falling, and the stress from which the system suffers is a result of crowding and rapidly rising demand, not popular neglect and apathy towards the urban world. And just as the problems of today are different from the problems of yesteryear, so too will the solutions need to be. Though primary responsibility for the MTA’s fiscal and managerial wellbeing ultimately rests with its legislative supervisors in Albany, fixing the challenges facing the agency today will require complex, nuanced cooperation between stakeholders at all levels of government and civic leadership.

The MTA’s recent success cannot be overstated. Ridership on the New York City subways—the MTA’s most popular, and core, service—reached the highest level in 65 years in 2014, with growth seen across all boroughs and lines. And ridership growth continues to expand outside the traditional peak hours, setting records for off-peak and weekend ridership. Despite—in fact, to some extent, because of—this success, the system faces a cascade of new challenges resulting from its antiquated infrastructure and from overcrowding.

2014, and its record ridership, also saw a significant rise in delayed and disrupted trains, with about 20 percent of all trains arriving late. At the same time, MTA bus ridership has fallen significantly over the last five years after major service reductions in 2010. And work persists on the subway tunnels and on South Ferry station damaged by Superstorm Sandy, demonstrating the system’s significant need to build resilience.  

Rehabilitating the MTA system and modernizing it to meet the 21st century demands that have hit it so hard require demonstrated commitment from all involved, and that starts with working out an agreement on the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Plan. And right now, it doesn’t look good.

The MTA can certainly help itself by accelerating state-of-good-repair investment (things like advanced signaling systems, new train cars, and track work) that would make the rides of everyday commuters speedier and more reliable. It should communicate better the importance of these maintenance investments and practices to riders, and the economic impact of capital and maintenance investments alike to upstate voters and politicians. And it must show the public and political leadership that it is able to manage projects efficiently and cost-effectively, particularly as major investments like the Second Avenue Subway, LIRR East Side Access, and Metro-North Penn Station Access move toward completion in the coming years. Avoiding embarrassments like the ever-delayed opening of the (essentially complete) 7 line extension would be a good start.

Ultimately, though, responsibility for making sure the MTA gets the investment—and the oversight—it needs rests with the political echelon both in New York City and in Albany. Though the Cuomo administration has professed a significant emphasis on resilience and recovery from severe weather across the state, it has shown little interest in helping guide money to the MTA that would help build the system’s capacity to resist and recover from future damage. The MTA’s status as a state-level authority  has also isolated it from its most important constituency, and New York City’s contribution has lagged well below what would be expected given inflation; had it kept pace, it would have been $363 million last year, rather than an average of $100 million since 2000.

Coming to a consensus on how to fund the MTA capital plan, and on improving the system generally, will require a degree of seriousness and recognition of technical and fiscal constraints from city and state officials that many have yet to demonstrate. The MTA system is at a precipice, staring over a cliff at the process by which dysfunctional governance can debilitate a transit system, the effects of which can be seen not far away. As a result of what some have called “budget chicken” between DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has now entered a self-reinforcing cycle of deferred maintenance, service cuts, and degraded user experience that transit professionals call a “death spiral.” That future—a game of cat-and-mouse between legislators, the executive branch, and local politicians, leading to a service crisis—could be the outcome in the MTA service region if those responsible for the needs of the system do not prioritize its wellbeing.

Sandy Johnston is a student in the Master’s in Regional Planning Program at the University at Albany and a graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. He blogs at and is on Twitter at @sandypsj. He is an intern for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a non-profit organization working toward a more balanced, transit-friendly and equitable transportation system in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Say No to The Media Hype

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NYPD (photo via @CommissBratton)

In recent days our city's leading tabloid newspapers, The Daily News and The Post, published screaming headlines and overheated stories promoting the dubious notion that the uptick this year in homicides - as compared to a similar period in 2014 - is directly tied to the NYPD's reduced use of the discredited stop-and-frisk tactic. This fear-monghering ignores important realities.

Some actual facts, based on the police department's own data, that challenge the wisdom of that argument and that provide an instructive and somewhat longer view about what is really happening on New York City's streets:

Read more: Say No to The Media Hype

Giving New Yorkers a Fair Chance at Employment


Authors Williams, center, and Brewer, to his right

Having a past conviction or arrest should not prevent someone from being able to put food on the table or pay rent. The Fair Chance Act ensures that all New Yorkers, including those who have become stigmatized because of previous convictions, will have an equal opportunity to compete for jobs for which they qualify. Today is a National Day of Action urging President Obama to adopt a fair chance hiring policy for federal contractors. To mark the occasion, the New York City Council is expected to vote on and pass the NYC Fair Chance Act and join 17 states and more than 100 cities and counties who have already adopted similar legislation.

Read more: Giving New Yorkers a Fair Chance at Employment

To Continue Making Progress, We Need Mayoral Control

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Mayor de Blasio at school (photo: @NYCMayorsOffice)

Since taking office, Mayor Bill de Blasio has made our City's 1.1 million school children a priority: providing free, full-day, high-quality pre-kindergarten for every four-year-old; giving historically struggling schools aggressive resources they need to turn around; providing members of Citywide and Community Education Councils robust training; expanding dual-language programs for English Language Learners; encouraging collaborative pedagogy; and giving parents a meaningful voice in public education. These reforms would all be nearly impossible for the system to accomplish without the alignment of the Mayor's vision, Chancellor Carmen Fariña's leadership, and, ultimately, mayoral control of our city's schools.

Read more: To Continue Making Progress, We Need Mayoral Control

Condom Demonstrations a Positive Step but Not Enough

Joan Malin PPNYC

Joan Malin, the author

When Planned Parenthood of New York City sex educators have taught high school students in classrooms how to properly use condoms, one thing has been missing from the lessos: actual condoms.

Our educators are highly skilled and have provided education on proper condom use without actually conducting demonstrations, but they haven't been able to teach students using the most effective method. That is now changing—the city's Department of Health and Department of Education are now allowing condom demonstrations in high school classrooms as part of sex education. This is a positive step and a vital tool for learning—but it's not enough.

Read more: Condom Demonstrations a Positive Step but Not Enough

Preparing for New York's Next Constitutional Convention Referendum

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The NY State Senate Chambers (photo: Senate website)

New York's Constitution mandates a statewide referendum every twenty years on whether to convene a state constitutional convention. The time has come to begin preparing for the next referendum on Nov. 7, 2017, at which time voters will decide whether there is a convention the following April. Steps must begin to be taken now so that New Yorkers are ready to make an informed decision.

Read more: Preparing for New York's Next Constitutional Convention Referendum

Time to Reform Mayoral Control

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Mayor de Blasio visits a classeoom (photo: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

On May 12, a Quinnipiac poll was released showing that two to one, New York City voters believe that the mayor should share control over our public schools with other elected officials. On Tuesday, Public Advocate Letitia James issued a report, calling for improvements to ensure sufficient checks and balances and more parent input in school governance. We agree.

Read more: Time to Reform Mayoral Control

Building One Livable City

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A NYC park ribbon-cutting (@MarkLevineNYC)

New York is embarking on a building boom, and upzoning neighborhoods around the boroughs, with the laudable goal of making the city more affordable. But will it be more livable?

The answer depends, in part, on whether we plan for green space and open space to match all the new construction. With residential towers set to rise in at least 15 neighborhoods in line for new zoning, and the pace of building picking up city-wide, it's critical that we account for the infrastructure of public life. This means investing in new parks, playgrounds, street trees, and "green" features like bioswales as our city expands.

Read more: Building One Livable City