Gotham Gazette

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Eric Adams on Criminal Justice Reform, NYCHA Development & 2021 Controversy

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Eric Adams (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

During a recent interview, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams discussed a number of pressing topics, including the end of the legislative session in Albany, criminal justice reform and plans for a larger jail in downtown Brooklyn, controversy around campaign finance reform that is heating up the 2021 mayoral race, which Adams is a part of, and more.

On the Max & Murphy podcast last week, Adams, a former state senator before being elected borough president in 2013, said he is happy to see the progress being made by the all-Democratic led state government in Albany, including recently-passed, sweeping rent regulations that Adams had pushed for.

Democratic control of both houses of the Legislature “makes it much easier to accomplish the task,” Adams said, but he added “there’s so much more to do,” and expressed his support for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, which has since passed both the Assembly and Senate and was signed by Governor Cuomo, and legalization of adult-use marijuana, which has stalled.

According to Adams, being arrested for a non-violent drug offense, such as possession of marijuna, “really impacts your quality of life around employment, and other areas that a person can be productive in society.” The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act being debated in Albany and unlikely to pass this session, scheduled to end June 19, has the potential to prevent many of the 800,000 arrests made for marijuana possession in New York each year.

Adams called extending driver’s licenses to all who can earn one, through requisite paperwork and driving test, a “win-win,” and noted that the ability to drive legally allows immigrants to step out “from the shadows of government.” Furthermore, Adams noted that equal access to driver’s license allows for more accountability and safety on the road.

A former longtime member of the NYPD, Adams said, “It would deal with reporting incidents and accidents, it would allow people to be employed, and that’s just a win-win all the way around.”

Adams raised issues of education funding out of Albany and the city budget negotiations around “pay parity” for early childhood educators at Department of Education schools and community-based organizations funded by the city. Speaking just before an agreement was announced by Mayor de Blasio and the City Council on a new city budget for next fiscal year with a “commitment” to agreeing on a pay parity structure through collective bargaining with the labor unions involved, Adams said, “you need to ensure that our teachers in these pre-K locations are receiving the same salaries.” For Adams, this is especially concerning considering that “many of these local community based organizations are in poorer communities.”

Asked about the city’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with new or larger jail facilities in the four boroughs other than Staten Island, Adams said he plans to wait before releasing his official recommendation on the expanded Brooklyn jail plan. Adams said he was listening to local stakeholders, including community boards and other members of the public, and that he would soon issue his opinion as the jail plan moves through the formal land use review process, in which borough presidents like Adams have an advisory role.

Adams, who is in favor of closing the Rikers jails, argues more needs to be done in criminal justice reform to prevent people from engaging in crime in the first place and to ensure that communities are safe.

He said it is essential to “properly address the issue of not giving [young people] the services at the beginning of their educational opportunities.” Asked about bail and other reforms recently passed in Albany that will impact the city’s criminal justice system and jail population, Adams said, “I don’t believe that a person who commits a non-violent act, as I said earlier, should be incarcerated in Rikers merely because they do not have enough money to pay for bail.” Adams made a distinction when it comes to violent crime, though.

On the perpetually hot-button topic of public housing in New York City, Adams voiced strong support for housing development on NYCHA land, and said that the city should make a greater effort to help the struggling housing authority. NYCHA is crucial, Adams said, because 40% of New Yorkers experience a “sufficiency deficit,” meaning they do not make enough money to afford necessities such as, “food, shelter, and clothing.”

“We must get back into the affordable housing mindset,” Adams said, arguing it is important for both low- and middle-income New Yorkers. While expressing concern for NYCHA residents who may be hesitant to move apartments or see major change at their overall developments, he noted the extreme need NYCHA has for tens of billions of dollars in repairs and that many older NYCHA residents in multi-bedroom apartments could downsize, freeing up room.

“I think that we should utilize the infill buildings,” Adams said, and “I believe that all of this should be done with a conversation with the NYCHA residents.” Warning that the city must be smarter about managing its properties, Adams said there must be better use of technology and data. As he often does, he cited CompStat, the NYPD tool, and said its essential to use tech and data to eliminate “waste and mismanagement” and bring NYCHA into “the 21st century.”

Turning to politics, Adams was asked about a recent controversy over City Council legislation that was on the verge of passage. Other likely mayoral candidates in the next election -- with the all-important Democratic primary set for June 2021 -- have been embroiled in a back-and-forth over the last few weeks, with Comptroller Scott Stringer accusing City Council Speaker Corey Johnson of moving campaign finance reform legislation to benefit Johnson and hurt his competition, particularly Stringer.

Under the legislation, which Mayor de Blasio appears supportive of, any candidate who wants to opt into a new system with higher public matching of smaller contributions must retroactively abide by new rules, including returning money raised in 2018 that exceeded the new maximum donation limits from individual donors. Candidates can, for one more election cycle, choose whether to use the old system, with lower public matches but higher individual donations, or the new system. If Stringer -- and Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the other likely mayoral candidate at this point -- wants to use the new system, he’ll have to refund potentially many thousands of dollars.

Adams claimed he stands alone on the issue of campaign finance reform, stating that he does not believe there should be any donor money in politics at all, calling for full public financing of campaigns. Fighting about dollar amounts is a “first world problem,” he said when asked about the controversy over the Council bill, and because of the barriers associated with having to raise money for campaigns, “good, qualified people are unable to run for mayor and we will never hear their voices,” he said.

Adams said campaigns “should be publicly financed,” and that, “it’s almost an insult to think that lowering dollar amounts is going to change the corruption problem in politics.”

On the issue at hand, Adams criticized Johnson, saying, “It’s wrong for any elected official to do something that’s going to impact them while they are in service.” He said he is still reviewing which system he’ll choose for the election.

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams]

by Cyan Hunte, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.


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

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(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]

by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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?

by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

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