Sochie Nnaemeka, the author (photo: @sochiesays)
In moments of crisis, we see what our leaders value. Over the past week, coronavirus has spread to Rikers Island. Our state should be focused on keeping detained New Yorkers and correctional workers safe and healthy. Instead, elected officials may roll back bail reforms in response to fear-mongering by opponents of the new law. If our leaders in Albany choose to reduce the number of people eligible to await their trial from home, the jail population could grow during a dangerous pandemic. We must put human safety over punishment and refuse any changes to the bail system.
For too long, New York’s “justice” system disproportionately kept innocent black, brown, and low-income people in cages before even being convicted—all because they were too poor to buy their freedom. While the wealthy were always able to walk free, these communities were caught in an endless cycle of punishment. It took decades of grassroots leadership and activism led by black and brown organizers to finally change a blatantly racist, classist system in meaningful ways.
Republicans, District Attorneys, and law enforcement that have a vested interest in past and present inequities are doing anything they can to claw back their power to incarcerate even more people. And some state officials are already caving to the fear-mongering by proposing regressive bail rollbacks.
There is nothing more cynical or cruel than choosing to put more people in jail during a pandemic.
Behind the negative headlines, we know there are tens of thousands of lives being changed for the better because of the new bail reforms. All across the state, we are hearing stories of New Yorkers who can now continue their lives and care for their children, rather than senselessly languish in jail and have their lives upended. People who need treatment for substance use or mental illness can get access to the support they need, rather than sitting in jails that have little to no health services.
Bail changes should be left alone regardless of any new developments unrelated to their efficacy. But to roll back bail reform in the midst of this pandemic would mean the state considers certain people’s lives expendable, including thousands of people whose only crime is being poor.
At a time when Governor Cuomo is telling New Yorkers to remain home, stay six feet away from others, and avoid crowds, he cannot simultaneously support sending more New Yorkers to crowded, unsafe jails. Our elected officials should instead focus on releasing vulnerable New Yorkers who are at increased risk of illness and reducing the jail population.
What if the New York State Legislature committed itself to building a state that treated all New Yorkers with dignity and equal justice? As head of the New York Working Families Party, I know our members expect progressive leaders to govern with courage and moral clarity — not to operate within the same fear-based framework that maintained a racist justice system for so long. In this moment of crisis, we’re calling on New York state leadership to reject the politics of fear and put the health and welfare of all New Yorkers, including some of the most vulnerable, first.