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For Total of 20 Potential Reforms, Charter Commission Adds 3 More Proposals to November Ballot


crc 2019

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)


Supporters of adding new teeth to investigations of police misconduct thought one of their priorities failed last week, when the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission voted down a proposal that would allow the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to investigate potentially false statements made in the course of its investigations.

At a major hearing last week, the commission voted through 17 proposals to change city elections and governance that will be put into ballot question language and presented for approval or disapproval by voters in November. Four of those measures strengthen the CCRB, which is tasked with investigating complaints against members of the NYPD and currently consists of a board of 13 appointees.

The commission also last week didn't take up or voted down a few proposals included in its staff report that had helped guide its final deliberations. One of those was the measure to propose to voters changing the city charter to allow the CCRB to investigate potential lying during its investigations, opening up the possibility that police officers who lie to the CCRB would be punished for doing so.

But on Tuesday night, the charter commission met again to consider a few final proposals for possible inclusion in what it presents to voters and it reconsidered and passed the additional CCRB measure.

Proposal 7, as it was known, was previously considered at the June 12 meeting, where commissioners discussed and approved the 17 proposals for the November ballot. At Tuesday’s meeting commissioners finalized the language on two approved proposals from the prior meeting, voted through three others, and discussed any proposals not on the previous meeting’s agenda that commissioners sought to raise.

The commission ultimately decided to add three more proposals to the 17 passed at the prior meeting, including the CCRB item, as well as restricting political donations from Conflict of Interest Board members, and extending the period that prohibits elected officials from lobbying to a city government entity. The commission is made up of 15 commissioners, with four appointed by the mayor, four by the City Council, including Chair Gail Benjamin, and one each by the public advocate, comptroller, and five borough presidents.

Change of Heart on Lying to the CCRB
On the added CCRB measure, Commissioner Sateesh Nori, appointed by then-Public Advocate Letitia James, said he thought the commission should reconsider the proposal because of the importance of truth.

“I want us to hold truth and honesty as an ideal for our elected officials, for our judges, for our teachers, and maybe most importantly for our police officers,” Nori said. “This isn’t about being for or against cops. This is about the rule of law, about accountability, and about justice.”

Commissioners who voted yes Tuesday but voted no in the June 12 meeting said talking with supporters of CCRB reform made them reconsider.

Carl Weisbrod, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and one of the commissioners who voted against the proposal last week, said “representatives of the CCRB” he spoke to already thought they had the power to investigate false claims. But he said this was one reason he decided to change his vote in support of the proposal.

“I do believe that it’s really important for this commission to affirm what the CCRB considers its power,” he said.

He added, “I think it’s really important for this commission to affirmatively assert that we won’t tolerate, as a society or as a city, false official statements – especially in the times in which we are living.”

Commissioner Lisette Camilo, appointed by de Blasio, said she would stick with her no vote because the measure would not necessarily change the CCRB’s power. “I do not believe that passing this will largely change anything,” she said. “This is more of a symbolic action.”

Other Votes
Commissioners also moved ahead several other measures.

They revisited proposals 8 and 16, both previously discussed and approved in the June 12 meeting, but that approval was contingent on commission staff expanding the respective proposals’ details.

Proposal 8 would create a guaranteed budget for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, requiring a CCRB budget that funds a headcount at the agency no less than 0.71% of the budgeted headcount of uniformed police officers in the NYPD. It would kick in for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 2020.

The amended version of the proposal allows that budget to be lower if the Mayor deems it fiscally necessary. In that case, the Mayor must provide detail for the basis of that determination and prove that cutting the CCRB budget is part of an overall plan to address financial downturn.

Similarly, proposal 16, as originally written, would create an independent or guaranteed budget for Borough Presidents and the Public Advocate and require that these respective budgets be set at or above the Fiscal Year 2019 budgets.

The amended proposal requires the budgets to be set or above the Fiscal Year 2020 budgets, adjusted moving forward by the lesser of either inflation or the percentage increase in relation to the city’s total budget. Just like in the case of the CCRB budget, the budgets can be lower if the Mayor deems it fiscally necessary. In that case, the Mayor must provide detail for the basis of that determination and prove that reduction of the Public Advocate and Borough Presidents’ budgets is part of an overall plan to address any financial downturn.

The commission also agreed to prohibit sitting members of the city’s Conflict of Interest Board from making financial contributions to political campaigns. Opponents of this proposal said that it was a violation of board members’ first amendment rights, but it was passed in an effort to reduce conflicts of interest for those tasked with ruling on conflicts of interest by elected and appointed officials.

Voters will also get to weigh in on a proposal that will extend a rule that bans elected officials from lobbying a city political entity from one to two years after leaving city government.

There were other measures raised by commissioners Tuesday that were voted down, including a proposal that would establish a “democracy voucher” system for public campaign finance in the city; a proposal that would give Borough Presidents the power to call joint-agency meetings related to land use; a proposal to clarify the bounds of the Mayor’s budget impoundment power, and one to establish a commission to study the management of the city’s public pension fund.

Although these measures were voted down, the commission agreed to include some language recommending further review of a few of the proposals, like the one calling for a democracy voucher system, in their final staff report. That system, pushed by Commissioner Sal Albanese, appointee of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, would completely overhaul public campaign financing in New York City, eliminating all private money from campaigns and providing each voter with donation vouchers to give to their preferred candidates.

In a Wednesday statement, Adams, a likely 2021 mayoral candidate, called the disapproval of democracy vouchers a “short-sighted decision.” He added, “My hope is that democracy vouchers and other transformational ideas around campaign finance reform are put directly to voters in the future, so they can decide for themselves.”

While charter revision commissioners have now approved all of the proposals they plan to put on the November ballot, they will meet for a final time in July to formally adopt the final proposals with ballot language and groupings, and submit the ballot questions to the City Clerk. The commission will then begin months of public education and a push to get voters to approve all of their recommendations for charter change on November 5.

[READ: Charter Commission Approves 17 Proposals for November Ballot]

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by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Looks at Reducing Recidivism for People with Mental Illness


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Elizabeth Ford of Health + Hospitals, left, & Becky Scott of DOC (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council members on Monday held an oversight hearing to examine how New York prevents formerly incarcerated mentally ill persons from returning to jail. The hearing made clear that the de Blasio administration, Health + Hospitals public hospital system, and City Council members all want to reduce the number of mentally ill persons who rely on the jail system for their mental health care and keep those with serious mental illness out of jail altogether.

But, it was evident at the hearing that there is much more emphasis on services for the imprisoned mentally ill than on keeping those with serious mental illness out of jail, whether for the first time or in all-too-common recidivism.

The psychiatric services offered in city jails -- like nurse and doctor staff, therapeutic groups, and medicine -- are robust but someone with a serious mental illness often loses the best care upon leaving jail. This then contributes to high recidivism rates.

The hearing centered several key data points: roughly 43% of those held in city jails are suffering from mental illness (14% have serious mental illness); the recidivism rate in New York City is 20%, but for those with mental illness it’s 47%.

Held by the Council’s Committee on Justice System, Committee on Criminal Justice, and Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, the hearing looked at the different ways the city Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services, a part of New York’s public health care system, New York City Health + Hospitals, provide care for the mentally ill in prison and once they leave. Two pieces of legislation dealing with notifying defense attorneys of their detained clients’ mental health and returning unused commissary money to recently released inmates were also discussed with various stakeholders who testified.

As the overall jail population has declined significantly, the proportion of New Yorkers with mental illness in city jails has risen in recent years: the overall average daily population of city jails decreased from around 11,500 in 2014 to around 8,900 in 2018, and the percentage of people with mental illness increased from 38% to 43%.

The percentage of those with a serious mental illness, defined by Correctional Health Services as anyone with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, has increased from 10.2% to 14.3% in that same time frame.

Council Member Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice, asserted that the City Council and the different city agencies in attendance all agree that jail is not the place to help seriously mentally ill people. However, jail is often where people with serious mental illness wind up, and jails often offer medical services – city jails have many psychiatric services located in one place (in fact, Rikers Island is the third-biggest provider of psychiatric care in the United States behind jails in Los Angeles and Chicago).

Currently, city jails put inmates diagnosed with mental illness in “mental observation houses” (MOs), where there are advanced levels of service and psychiatric nurses available, or the more intensive option, PACE (Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness) units where there’s 24/7 embedded staff and more therapeutic groups, according to Dr. Elizabeth Ford, who testified for Correctional Health Services.

However, through questioning from Powers, Ford admitted right now there are people who qualify for PACE but due to spacing issues are only in MOs. THE CITY reported in April that the de Blasio administration is well behind on its planned 12 PACE units by 2020 (currently there are six).

Council member questions made clear that there are many mental health services available in prison, but the key organizing question of the hearing was: what happens when an inmate/patient is released? Ford said CHS gives inmates seven days of their medicine so they don’t drop off too preciptiously after leaving jail, a 30-day prescription which can be fulfilled at a pharmacy of their convenience, and many referrals to outpatient treatment programs.

Outpatient treatment is the primary way people with mental illness are treated in New York, most of which are run by New York City Health + Hospitals. Outpatient care requires patients to appear at appointments, as opposed to inpatient care or state institutionalization – mental health care nationwide over the past 60 years has transitioned away from state-run facilities once known as “insane asylums” or “psychiatric hospitals” and towards outpatient care.

When asked how CHS can make sure recently-released inmates follow through on getting care, Ford mentioned they are hiring more social workers and focusing on making sure existing services, like existing mobile care teams, work well rather than accepting “new mandates.”

In terms of keeping mentally ill people out of prison in the first place, Ford brought up the new plan from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio of helping mentally ill people go to the Health + Hospitals system, instead of prison.

Furthermore, two diversion centers -- in East Harlem and South Bronx -- will offer police officers a place to bring emotionally disturbed people who exhibit signs of mental illness instead of arresting them. They’re not open yet, but are supposed to open later this year.

Ford hopes the community-based aspect of the diversion centers will be especially useful as the centers will be located to existing outpatient care.

Supportive housing is another way to prevent recidivism, according to Ford. Supportive housing offers mental health services to people struggling to find housing. The de Blasio administration plans to build 15,000 supportive housing units over 15 years.

If the roughly 1,200 city jail detainees diagnosed with serious mental illness were to be released tomorrow, the relatively minor supportive housing options and short-term diversion centers combined with New York’s disinclination towards inpatient care throw doubt on how the seriously mentally ill would be treated without jail-based services.

The city has created what they call Community Re-Entry Assistance Network (CRAN) teams, which are six-month transitional teams to help those with serious mental illness re-enter the community after release.

On the two pieces of proposed legislation being considered at the hearing, the lead sponsor of the defense attorney notification bill is Manhattan Council Member Margaret Chin, while Queens Council Member Donavan Richards is the lead sponsor of the commissary bill.

Chin’s bill, Intro. 1590, would require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to notify the defense attorney of a person who is in the custody of the Department of Correction and who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

The bill, co-sponsored by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and six other Council members, is not supported by Correctional Health Services in its current language. Although Dr. Ford chose to keep some reservations of Correctional Health Services private, she did mention that the agency has a newly-created court liaison program intended to act as a go-between for defense attorneys and medical officers.

The current process for notifying the defense attorney of a seriously mentally ill person who is accused of a crime is the patient must give consent to Correctional Health Services and CHS gives information relevant to the mental illness diagnosis to the defense attorney.

The bill “attempts to break the cycle of imprisonment,” said Chin, as ideally more cases could take mental illness into account.

The most intense exchanges of the hearing occurred in regard to the other piece of legislation discussed Monday. Intro. 0903, Council Member Richards’ bill, would require the Department of Correction to notify all recently-released former inmates if there is money in their individual jail commissary account as well as return that money within 60 days of release.  

A commissary account, which can be deposited into by an inmate’s family, is essentially a bank account that the inmate can use to purchase snacks or personal products while in jail. Currently, the Department of Correction is holding $3.7 million from as far back as 2012 in unclaimed commissary money for the over 140,000 individuals who have not claimed it.

Richards, indignant, heavily implied DOC wasn’t making any effort to return the money, while DOC testifiers stated multiple times they don’t use the unclaimed money for their own purposes.

According to those who testified for the Department of Correction, the only outreach done by the DOC has been to put posters -- only in English -- in the jails. DOC representatives said the often unpredictable nature of inmates’ release schedules as well as the general difficulty in remaining in contact with released inmates makes returning the money difficult. DOC does not support the bill, citing difficult logistics.

In a fitting summary of the hearing, Council Member Diana Ayala of Harlem and the Bronx said if the Department of Correction cannot find people leaving prison to give them their money back, how can they ensure the mentally ill leaving prison get the mental services they need?

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by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

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NAACP, Anti-Smoking Groups Press City Council Speaker on Bills Banning Flavored Cigarettes


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Council Members Levine, center, & Cabrera, behind him (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York chapter of the NAACP and four of the nation’s largest anti-smoking groups are urging City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to support two bills that would effectively ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in New York City. The groups recently sent a letter urging Speaker Johnson to bring the two proposals up for a vote in the City Council.

The first bill, Intro. 1345, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera, would end an exemption in a previous city law that banned the sale of flavored cigarettes to allow for the continued sale of menthol, mint, and wintergreen flavors.

The second bill, Intro. 1362, sponsored by Manhattan Council Member Mark Levine, who chairs the Council’s Health Committee, would ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.

The American Heart Association, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Lung Association, and American Cancer Society joined the NAACP’s New York State Conference in calling for flavored tobacco products to be banned in New York City. They say the tobacco industry uses flavored products to specifically target young people and communities of color.

“We strongly urge you to enact two proposals pending before the Council – both cracking down on flavored tobacco products that lure and addict our children,” reads the letter.

The letter states that 85% of African-American smokers use flavored productions (compared to 29% of white smokers). These organizations believe this is a leading reason why “African Americans suffer the greatest burden of tobacco-related mortality of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.”

Last year, youth e-cigarette use, which increased 80% in 2018, was declared an “epidemic” by the U.S. Surgeon General. The advocacy groups’ letter points to a survey that found that “81.5% of youth e-cigarette users and 73.8 percent of youth cigar users saying they used the product ‘because they come in flavors I like.’”

The letter calls these trends “simply unacceptable” and implores Speaker Johnson to act on the issue. Both bills were first introduced in January and hearings were held in that same month, but there has been no change in the legislation’s status for five months, save additional sponsors signing on.

In May, all five borough presidents signed on to a letter drafted by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams supporting the two bills. Both Adams, who has made public health a signature issue, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. are considering runs for mayor, as is Johnson, who has also had a focus on health and chaired the Council’s health committee last term.

Johnson has been waging a public battle to quit smoking cigarettes, recently tweeting that he had hit 40 days without one (he told Gothamist he bought a juul, but did not indicate if it is flavored).

“The Council is always working to improve the public health outcomes of all New Yorkers, and we are continuing to review these proposals as they go through the legislative process,” according to a spokesperson for Johnson, who did not indicate where the speaker himself falls on the bills.

Neither bill has a majority of sponsors in the Council.

Eighteen of 51 Council members have sponsored Cabrera’s bill. “Flavored tobacco leads to the preventable deaths of thousands of New Yorkers each year and it is people of color and our children who are most at risk of getting hooked,” Cabrera said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We must move quickly to significantly restrict menthol cigarettes and flavored cigarettes in our city.”

Fourteen Council members have sponsored Levine’s bill. Twelve of the 14 also sponsor Cabrera’s bill. “To protect kids and our communities, we have to end the sale of flavored tobacco products in New York,” Levine said in a statement, adding that he is “working hard in the City Council to pass legislation to ban these products and ensure they can no longer be used to addict the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

Some anti-tobacco advocates have posited that the bills haven’t moved because the National Action Network, a civil rights organization led by Rev. Al Sharpton, has come out against Cabrera’s proposal.

During the Council health committee hearing on the bills in January, Kyra Stephenson-Valley, NAN’s cessation coordinator, said “it is proven that increased regulation does not necessarily stop users, but rather criminalizes addicts without resource,” pointing out that there have been “disparate impacts.”

She went further, declaring that “bans and prohibitions can lead to an increase in negative interactions between law enforcement and African-Americans.” She also alluded to Eric Garner’s death, saying “history has shown us here in New York City that can take your life over a loose cigarette.”

In addition to City Council testimony, according to Politico, NAN “has held town halls at prominent black churches throughout the United States to talk about how menthol bans criminalize the black community.” According to a spokesperson for Council Speaker Johnson, Sharpton has mentioned the issue to him in passing, but has not directly lobbied Johnson or the Council.

City Council Member Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat who supports Levine’s bill but not Cabrera’s, said in a statement, “I have been an ardent supporter of stricter laws on smoking but want to ensure that no community feels targeted.” He did not respond when asked whether any individual or group personally lobbied him against Intro. 1345.

According to FairWarning, NAN receives funding from R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco company in America. The company produces Newports, which are the nation’s best-selling menthol cigarette brand. According to FairWarning, R.J. Reynolds’ donations to NAN are part of a broader corporate strategy of “seizing on the hot button issue of police harassment of blacks to counter efforts by public health advocates to restrict menthol sales,” with the help of prominent African-Americna leaders and advocacy groups.

The tobacco industry has a long history of employing similar tactics. According to the CDC, tobacco companies have historically attempted “to maintain a positive image among African Americans have included such efforts as supporting cultural events and making contributions to minority higher education institutions, elected officials, civic and community organizations, and scholarship programs.”

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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