Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced on Thursday a package of proposals aimed at reforming New York City’s criminal justice system to be more fair and equitable, building on changes championed by progressive politicians and advocates in New York and Albany over the last several years.
Johnson presented a vision of criminal justice in New York based on refocusing the system away from incarceration and expanding the tools available to pursue his version of justice and public safety.
Speaking at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, Johnson told the audience, “Going forward, our default response to most arrests should be diversion, treatment, and rehabilitation – not incarceration.”
His package of reforms includes proposals to deal with matters of economic justice, sex work and gender discrimination, and mental health, as well as technical aspects of criminal justice policy. Some of the changes must be approved by state government, some through city government, where Johnson has significant sway as the leader of the legislature, and some he can move based on the power and funds at his disposal, he said.
“These critical reforms and investments in alternatives to incarceration at every stage of the justice system are essential to creating a more efficient and effective justice system,” said former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who now chairs the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which was empaneled under Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who had a significant criminal justice focus and pushed for the closure of the jails on Rikers Island, eventually winning over Mayor Bill de Blasio.
As both crime and the city’s jail population have fallen to record lows, Johnson’s proposals are meant to accelerate those trends, which is essential for restorative justice, he said, as well as closing the Rikers jails. In 2017, the mayor and Mark-Viverito announced a plan to close the Rikers jails in ten years, contingent on siting four borough-based jails and reducing the jail population to 5,000.
That projection was recently modified to 4,000 detainees in nine years, thanks largely to bail reform in Albany, which passed the Democratic-controlled state Legislature earlier this year and will go into effect in 2020. The changes to the law eliminate the use of cash bail in most misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases, the use of which has contributed to the disproportionate incarceration of poor, black, and Latino people.
Johnson’s proposed and planned efforts build on initiatives and proposals from the Council over the past few years, which included policies to reduce criminal penalties and stem the flow of New Yorkers into the jail system. Whereas Johnson’s main area of focus in a little over a year as speaker has been mass transit, his pivot toward criminal justice reform echoes Mark-Viverito, who made it a central part of her platform -- passing the Criminal Justice Reform Act to divert cases from the criminal justice system to the civil system, and creating the commission to explore shuttering Rikers that eventually forced de Blasio’s hand.
Johnson’s policy speech addressed some of the same issues by focusing on individuals prior to incarceration and eliminating charges, fines, and technical violations that trap people inside the cycle of incarceration and recidivism. The individual reforms he announced point to systemic problems that net communities along broad lines of race, class, and gender, which he named and took aim at during his speech.
The speaker began his speech addressing accountability for individual police officers, who are often the first point of contact between New Yorkers and the criminal justice system. “We need to repeal 50-a, the state law that allows the NYPD to shield police officers from public scrutiny,” he said.
The state’s Civil Rights Law, section 50-a, was until recently an obscure, decades-old statute that has newly been interpreted to prevent the public disclosure of police and correction department personnel records, including disciplinary records.
It is a factor in the high-profile NYPD administrative trial of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer accused of choking Eric Garner to death in 2014, because, while the trial is open to the public, the final decision to discipline him may be shielded by the police department. A resolution in the City Council, introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, calls on the state Legislature to repeal 50-a, though only 13 Council members have signed on and the speaker is not one of them.
Both Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have expressed support for major changes to 50-a, but it has not been an apparent point of conversation in Albany.
For many incarcerated people, jail is the result of technicalities that fall outside the criminal acts that originally brought them to the criminal justice system. Johnson is proposing reforms to parole, which he says would address the roughly 600 people (8 percent of the jail population) who are behind bars because they failed to meet some requirement of their parole, like missing an appointment with a parole officer or not passing a drug test.
His plan includes a program to identify people arrested for parole violations as soon as they are jailed and “fast track” them to release. A second program would “work directly with parole judges to identify individuals they don’t think should be sent back to prison,” and put them “in a community-based program that will provide important services like transitional housing and drug treatment.”
For Johnson, driving offenses are another piece of the mass incarceration calculus that hinges on a technicality. “The fourth most charged crime in our city is driving with a suspended license,” he told the crowd. “Over 15,000 people every year are fingerprinted, booked, and charged with this quote-unquote crime.” According to Johnson 87 percent of people arrested for driving with a suspended license are not white, while 76 percent of all city drivers are white.
A number of the reforms the speaker put forward focus on addressing root causes of mass incarceration.
Several center mental health needs of people in jail and finding alternative methods for addressing those needs, a shift away from the practice of treating the city’s jails as repositories for the hardest to treat. “The health care system has turned away the chronically ill, and left jails as the public caretaker of last resort,” Johnson said.
To ameliorate this, Johnson’s fixes include a pilot program for “men who need transitional housing and not jail,” investing in residential mental health programs for incarcerated people, and funding a program to facilitate engagement between defense lawyers and social workers to identify alternatives to jail early on.
“We also need to address the continued incarceration of individuals whose conditions improve after being in custody,” Johnson said. “People get better, but they don’t get out.” To do this, Johnson has a bill that would require correctional health services to pass on vital information about a detainee’s mental health to their lawyer.
Johnson said he would also seek funding to expand diversion programs, like the Center for Court Innovation’s Project Reset, which provides community-based alternatives to incarceration for misdemeanors, and to pilot an “alternatives to incarceration” courtroom in Brooklyn.
Economic Injustice and Gender Inequity
Theme of Johnson’s proposals are making criminal justice economically just and challenging the standards by which New York assesses criminality. Johnson is seeking to tie civil fines to the value of a person’s daily income, rather than to a fixed rate, which has placed a disproportionate burden on the lowest-income New Yorkers. He would also like the state to do away with mandatory court surcharges.
Johnson wants to decriminalize parts of the sex trade that result in “needless prosecution” including the state law that penalizes loitering for alleged prostitution, which he called “archaic and wrongheaded.”
“Arrests for this offense disproportionately target transgender women and women of color. The number of these arrests more than doubled between 2017 and 2018,” he told the audience. “This is blatant misogyny.”
The speaker went on to identify “survival sex” -- what survivors of sex trafficking are often forced to engage in -- as distinct from sex work in general, and that this should not be a prosecuted offense. “This doesn’t mean I support legalizing the sex trade. But persons involved in the sex trade should be given the services they say they need,” he said.
Many of the proposals will require Johnson to work with other government entities in the city and state to pass laws, secure funding, and establish partnerships essential to his reform package.
A final plank in his plan is to reassess the way city policy in other areas treat people with criminal convictions, speaking to the collateral consequences of incarceration that follow people out of the criminal justice system and into everyday life, including eligibility for crucial city services.
In an email to Gotham Gazette, Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, wrote, “It’s imperative that we continue to address racial disparities and to make smart investments in people and communities who have been impacted by historic injustices. We look forward to reviewing the Speaker’s proposal.”