Gotham Gazette Wed, 05 Aug 2020 13:28:45 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Real Criminal Justice Reform Requires Standing Up to Fear-Mongering courtroom

(photo: Governor's Office)

Nearly five years ago, Jerome Murdough, an African-American Marine Corps veteran, died on Rikers Island due to a combination of injustice, inhumanity, and medical neglect. Afflicted by homelessness and mental illness, Murdough tragically passed away when temperatures in his cell reached 100 degrees – heat that was contraindicated with his medicine – and he baked to death. The reason for this death sentence: He was cold one night and sought shelter in a public housing stairwell, where he was arrested for trespassing and jailed on $2,500 bail.

All across the country, in response to tragic injustices like those faced by Jerome Murdough, the movement to end mass incarceration is making real gains. After decades of oppressive policies, many policymakers are pursuing real solutions to shrink jail and prison populations and challenge the racial disparities that define the criminal legal system.

Reformers may have the momentum, but that doesn’t mean that the pro-mass incarceration lobby is finished. The lobby includes regressive prosecutors and sheriffs, as well as bail bonds companies that profit from the status quo. In New York, it looks a lot like they’re just getting started again, and their tactics are likely a preview of what we’ll see across the country as people demand more reforms.

Last April, when Governor Cuomo signed historic criminal legal system reforms into law, New York took a huge step towards addressing the systemic inequities of our current bail and discovery laws. The new laws, which take effect today -- January 1, 2020 -- will dramatically reduce the number of people held in pretrial detention and prevent prosecutors from unjustly withholding evidence.

No longer will our bail laws allow tens of thousands of people in poverty to be jailed every year while facing only alleged misdemeanors and non-violent felonies while the wealthy pay bail and remain free until and unless they receive a sentence upon conviction. No longer will our discovery law blindfold people to the evidence, a practice that has fueled wrongful convictions, ruined lives, and cost millions in legal settlements.

These reforms respond to the urgency of a system that often allows a person’s race and income to determine their freedom -- a system that tramples on the idea that a person is innocent unless they are proven guilty.

And now, as we begin implementation, those with a vested interest in keeping this system unfair for low-income New Yorkers and people of color are trying to scare lawmakers into undoing the fragile progress. They are mobilizing across the state with dire warnings of what might go wrong – as if people are not hurt by the existing system every day.

As public defenders, we see firsthand the impact that jailing has on the criminal legal system, as we routinely represent clients who languish in jail for months, if not years, simply because they are unable to afford bail money. They miss milestones like graduations, weddings, and funerals while they are detained away from their families and friends, losing jobs and housing, and even losing their children to foster care -- all without ever having been convicted of anything. Not to mention the grave risk to their lives: 372 people have died in New York City jails since 2001.

Many of the people we serve feel immense pressure to plead guilty simply because it would get them out of jail quicker than waiting for a trial would. Research shows that being held in pretrial detention increases both the likelihood of conviction and the length of prison sentences, though many are released from jail after accepting a plea deal.

Prosecutors understand the power and leverage that a broken pretrial system offers them, wielding that unfair advantage to coerce plea deals: 95% of all cases end in plea deals or dismissals, not trials. Adding to the unjust and coercive nature of this system, the vast majority of all of these pleas are negotiated with one side left in the dark because of the discovery law.

Of course, prosecutors want to roll back these reforms. The old system helped artificially increase their conviction rates, or to appear “progressive” by authorizing alternatives to detention that include constant and invasive surveillance when a person should be released outright pending trial. A deck stacked in their favor helps ensure they exercise outsized control over outcomes, regardless of the facts of a case.

When prosecutors claim that these pretrial reforms will result in ‘criminals’ running free and skipping their court dates – dehumanizing and inaccurate language, to be sure – it is important to remember that charitable bail funds already prove them wrong. For example, Bronx Freedom Fund found that 96% of the more than 2,500 people for whom they paid bail — each and every one presumed innocent — attended all of their court dates; 55% of those cases were entirely dismissed.

Moving past the fear-mongering, it’s important not to lose sight of the victims of the old system. It is people like Jerome Murdough and Kalief Browder and India Cummings and Robert Ingalsbe and Selmin Feratovic and Layleen Polanco who have lost their lives because of brutal jail conditions and the violence and despair they breed.

New York must show the nation that we can make real strides toward justice in our criminal legal system. Too many lives have already been ruined not to implement these reforms as required under the law.

Justine Olderman is the Executive Director of the Bronx Defenders. Lisa Schreibersdorf is the Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services. Tina Luongo is the Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society. Stan German is the Executive Director of New York County Defender Services. Matt Knecht is the Managing Director of Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem.

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Real Criminal Justice Reform Requires Standing Up to Fear-Mongering Tue, 31 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Debating Major Criminal Justice Reforms Taking Effect in January nycpba wbai 600

SI DA McMahon at a press conference (photo: @NYCPBA)

November 27, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Debating Major Criminal Justice Reforms Set to Take Effect in January

da mcmahon marie nidaye 150Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon and Marie Ndiaye of Legal Aid Society joined the show to discuss their respective concerns about and support for major criminal justice reforms passed earlier this year in Albany an set to take effect in January, especially bail reform and discovery reform.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Debating Major Criminal Justice Reforms Taking Effect in January Fri, 29 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany guards rikers

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Riding high on the crest of a Democratic blue wave powered by grassroots progressives, New York Democrats finally took back the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade. With this accomplishment comes a responsibility to finally act upon a long list of priorities that have been stymied by the Republican-controlled upper chamber of the Legislature in Albany.  

Chief among these priorities is criminal justice reform, a topic that the New York City Council has been tackling aggressively for some time. Perhaps the Council’s most ambitious effort in this sphere has been to close all jails on Rikers Island. The decrepit jails on this island embody human misery and tragedy and it is our moral imperative to close them forever.

Any realistic effort to close these jails requires reducing the pretrial detention population, as close to 90 percent of those housed on Rikers are merely accused and not convicted of crimes. While the city has managed to take several bold steps in this area, state action will be required to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality. Over the past few years, our efforts at state reform have been hamstrung by an uncooperative state Senate. Throughout the process, our progressive allies in the Assembly majority and Senate minority voiced support for progressive criminal justice reform but were unable to move key bills to fruition.

Their inability to move legislation through the Senate did not stop some state elected officials from crafting bills that would greatly improve our criminal justice system. This legislation now stands a strong chance of passing once the new Democratic majority sits for the 2019 legislative session.

agenda19v2 aFirst and foremost, bail and speedy trial reform must be prioritized. Both efforts would go a long way towards a more equitable criminal justice system writ large, while lowering the detainee population on Rikers Island. While we here on the City Council have done much to make our bail system fairer, only Albany can implement the deep and systemic reform necessary to make our pretrial detention system truly fair and just. There are a number of bills in the Assembly and Senate that either significantly restrict or eliminate cash bail, encourage the use of monitored release in lieu of detention, and help ensure that pretrial detention is reserved for only the most severe cases. Any of this legislation would go a long way towards fixing what is a fundamentally broken and unfair bail system.

Meanwhile, speedy trial reform is arguably even more important in reducing pretrial detention. Given that close to 90 percent of the jail population is pretrial detainees, cutting the speed with which cases are resolved has a direct and massive impact on the jail population: a 25 percent faster system would mean close to a 25 percent reduction in the jail population. Much like our state’s bail laws, our speedy trial laws are outdated and ineffective, lagging far behind the federal system and other states. As they say, justice delayed is justice denied, so resolving criminal prosecutions faster not only reduces our jail population, it also helps our criminal justice system as a whole. While Senate Democrats tried to push for some minor reforms to our broken speedy trial laws in recent years, our new Senate leaders must be aggressive in tackling this issue.

There are also lesser-discussed issues that could be enormously transformative, such as parole reform. Approximately 16 percent of the population of Rikers Island jails is incarcerated for parole violations, and the state controls this issue in its entirety. According to a report issued by Columbia University’s Justice Lab, the state parolee population is the only jail group that saw an increase in its size over the past four years. Thankfully, Albany is aware of the issue, evident in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State speech, in which he touched on the importance of parole reform. When the new state Legislature convenes in January, it can move to shorten parole terms, incentivize good behavior, and require speedier hearings on these issues.

Though its impact on our jail population may not immediately be apparent, discovery reform should also prove critical in helping the city to run a more just criminal justice system and to close Rikers Island jails. Discovery is the process by which the prosecution provides its evidence to the defense. New York State has among the most restrictive discovery laws in the country. While the issue may seem complex, it is actually fairly simple: since well over 95 percent of criminal prosecutions result in a plea or dismissal, the faster the defense is able to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case, the faster a plea or dismissal can be reached. Luckily, there is already legislation in Albany to ameliorate the situation, and our new leaders should embrace these progressive reforms.  

Over the past several years, we here at the City Council worked hard to bring our criminal justice system into the 21st century. However, there has always been a limit to what we can accomplish without willing partners in Albany. In early January, when our fellow Democrats in the state Senate take their seats as the new majority and work with the Democratic majority in the Assembly, the possibilities for progressive criminal justice reform will widen tremendously.

The progressive activists who helped make Democratic victories a reality in November will be watching the new Legislature closely. It is imperative that our state elected officials finally act to create a criminal justice system in New York that reflects our values as a state and a city.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Diana Ayala, Margaret Chin, and Stephen Levin are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus. Their districts are all slated to be home to new or larger jails as Rikers Island facilities are closed. On Twitter @DianaAyalaNYC & @CM_MargaretChin & @StephenLevin33.

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As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany Sun, 16 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000