Gotham Gazette Wed, 05 Aug 2020 14:25:42 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) In State of the City, Mark-Viverito Outlines Civic Engagement, Voter Empowerment Plans mmv youth

Mark-Viverito with young attendees of her speech (photo: William Alatriste) 

In her second State of the City address, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on Thursday made it clear that she is determined to make New York a more inclusive city where different voices are heard and counted. Her message of 'More Justice,' the title for the speech, resonated in the different initiatives the speaker announced to improve civic engagement and to empower New Yorkers so that city policy is more fair and responsive to constituents.

Speaking at the Samuel Gompers Campus in the South Bronx, Mark-Viverito said she wants to kickstart the heartbeat of New York's democracy, with increased funding for participatory budgeting, expanding student voter registration, using technology to increase voter turnout, and enhancing community input in land use decisions.

She touted the success of the Council's participatory budgeting program, calling it a "laboratory for what an enfranchised voting populace is all about," and announced that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will pledge $1 million to the process this year.

The last round of participatory budgeting, she said, saw increased participation owing to new outreach measures, including text notifications telling people when and where to vote. Youth participation, in particular, was high she said, with 12 percent of PB votes cast by those under 18 years old.

Much of Mark-Viverito's speech focused on youth and the importance of young voices in city matters. She committed to expanding voter registration in high schools, with the ultimate goal of registering at least 10,000 students. This would increase the Council's current funding of student voter registration at 56 high schools to 125 high schools.

"Our young people can, and should be, a powerful voice in the next election," she said.

Voter turnout has been a particular challenge for New York state. In the 2014 elections, with only 29 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, New York ranked 49th in voter participation in the country, fact Mark-Viverito bemoaned during her speech.

"This generation was lucky enough to be born with the right to vote, regardless of race or gender," said City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, in a statement. Rosenthal has led Council efforts to promote Student Registration Voter Day. "Our next challenge," Rosenthal said, "is to raise awareness of the value of voting and civic participation."

Mark-Viverito placed partial blame for the dismal voting record on outdated voting laws and said the Council would push to make voting easier. She also pledged support for Governor Andrew Cuomo's efforts on voting reform, as promised in his State of the State speech, which include early voting and automatic voter registration when New Yorkers interact with government agencies.

"The public cannot stand up and be counted if we fail to modernize our voting process," Mark-Viverito said.

In keeping with this proposed modernization and tackling some of what the city has control over, Mark-Viverito announced new initiatives including a voting app and online portal to help voters locate polling places, check their registration, track absentee ballots, and obtain other election data. The city will also start to notify voters via email and text messages to improve turnout. "We are going to bring democracy right to your fingertips," she said to New Yorkers.

More than by voting alone, the speaker wants young professionals to directly participate in local government. She announced the creation of a full-time one-year Social Justice Postgrad Fellowship, which would place graduates with professional degrees in positions throughout city government.

Noting that public service is not always an option for young professionals without financial means, Mark-Viverito said, "We need to recommit ourselves to a simple yet powerful notion: New York needs to be a city for everyone, with policymaking and governance that is open to everyone."

Mark-Viverito segued into addressing the city's handling of important local land use decisions. In the last few months, there has been widespread backlash from communities against Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposals to change the city's zoning codes and to rezone specific neighborhoods across the five boroughs. Residents have claimed that the processes have been top-down, without enough local input, and that plans do not meet neighborhood needs.

The speaker proposed a solution in her speech, calling on the city to develop Neighborhood Commitment Plans along with rezoning proposals to allow people to track the city's promises. "Planning for the future of our neighborhoods should start from the ground up and infuse the voices of everyday New Yorkers into policy decisions," she said.

She also appealed to the city to refine its guidelines for the Fair Share system to invite public input and ensure that different communities receive important city services in equal measure and are not overburdened by certain types of facilities.

The speaker's discussion of increasing civic engagement was coupled with attempts to improve communication with constituents: Mark-Viverito's speech was live-streamed in Bengali this year, along with Spanish and Mandarin as it had been before. It was also available online in multiple languages and City Council social media accounts were active throughout.

This is part of a larger commitment the de Blasio administration and City Council have made to reaching out to a broad base of ethnic communities. Earlier this month, the speaker and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new plans to utilize ethnic and community media outlets across the city.

Expanding on these measures, Mark-Viverito in her speech emphasized the need to upgrade the city's language access law, going beyond just translators, to create a more comprehensive framework.

"English proficiency should never be an obstacle to accessing city services," she said, promising a law that would require city agencies to gather data on language needs and demographics of the communities they serve. Its implementation would require the city to provide translation services for the top six languages identified. The Council will also work with the administration to provide emergency push notifications on digital devices in multiple languages through NotifyNYC.

"Language access is extremely important for New York City's immigrant, low-wage workers who are especially vulnerable to workplace violations and trafficking," said Linda Oalican, executive director, Damayan Migrant Workers Association, Inc. "Increasing language access at City agencies will provide vulnerable immigrant workers with more opportunity to report violations and assert their legal rights."

The Speaker also said the Council will establish financial outreach and education programs for immigrants, seniors, and women, giving them greater financial literacy and access to services.

A common thread running through the speech was Mark-Viverito's emphasis on empowerment -- for communities to have a say in rezoning plans, for the youth to have a say in social issues and, in the final section of her remarks, for women to have a larger role in city government and business.

The 51-seat City Council has 14 women, five of whom will be term-limited out of the next election. Those five are all women of color, Mark-Viverito said.

"Empowering women means empowering all of us – creating a stronger, healthier, and more just society," Mark-Viverito said before she talked about the Council's Young Women's Initiative launched last year. The initiative gauged input from more than 200 experts and advocates, including young women, transgender women, and gender-nonconforming women to create policy recommendations for the city.

On Thursday, the Speaker pledged $10 million from the city over the next two years, matched with another $10 million from private charitable donations, to fund the recommendations of the initiative including programs to enhance career guidance, leadership development, youth employment, transgender health services and access to contraceptives, and to end sexual exploitation. "Young women are the very foundation, the core of our city's hope for the future," Mark-Viverito said. "So we don't need cracks in the glass ceiling - we need to shatter it, once and for all."

The speaker also addressed issues of homelessness, pledging support for a $15 minimum wage, calling on the federal government to expand housing subsidies for low-income families, and appealing to the city administration to allocate more public housing to homeless families and survivors of domestic violence. She raised the possibility of the city creating its own permanent rental subsidy program modelled on the federal system and funded partially by the state. Current programs have time limits, at times leading people back into shelters when they cannot pick up their full rent without subsidy.

The speaker also announced increased support to families and caregivers through a bill that would require the city to identify the needs of caregivers and to provide them assistance. She spoke of increased investments in after-school programs, supporting paid family leave, and a Division of Paid Care under the newly-created Office of Labor Standards.

A large part of the speech focused on an expansive criminal justice reform plan, which includes reforming the warrant system; increased oversight of city jails; improved pre-trial, reentry and rehabilitation services; and the creation of an independent Criminal Justice Commission to study and accelerate reforms. "It's time to reimagine our entire criminal justice system," Mark-Viverito said.

[Related: Mark-Viverito 'Doubles Down' on Criminal Justice Reform in State of the City]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In State of the City, Mark-Viverito Outlines Civic Engagement, Voter Empowerment Plans Thu, 11 Feb 2016 21:51:46 +0000
Mark-Viverito 'Doubles Down' on Criminal Justice Reform in State of the City mmv speech 2016 

Mark-Viverito delivers her State of the City (photo: William Alatriste) 

During her second State of the City address, titled “More Justice,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced on Thursday a slew of new criminal justice reforms, including efforts to minimize the number of New Yorkers that end up in the city’s jail by clearing old arrest warrants for low-level, nonviolent offenses, and creating more programs to help reduce recidivism. She also said that as the number of inmates on Riker’s Island decreases, a plan for closing the notorious jail complexes could be enacted.

Addressing an issue at the center of criminal justice conversation over the past year, Mark-Viverito said those who have avoided getting into trouble with the law again for years should have old arrest warrants cleared. Clearing these warrants, some of them decades old, would greatly reduce the city’s backlog of over 1.1 million open summons warrants, which are the result of people failing to appear in court after receiving a summons for a low-level, nonviolent offense, such as having an open container of alcohol.

These open warrants can affect the warrant-holder’s immigration status, hurt their chances of getting a job, housing, or other services, and, of course, can result in jail time. A system where someone ends up in jail or with a permanent record for “being in a park after dark is simply not fair or proportionate,” Mark-Viverito said during her speech.

The new initiatives outlined by Mark-Viverito will build upon steps the City Council has already taken to bring “more justice” to the criminal justice system, including creating a citywide bail fund, passing legislation to increase transparency at Rikers Island, prohibiting prospective employers from inquiring about criminal history on job applications, and introducing legislation to change the way the city punishes low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as having an open container of alcohol in public or being in a park after dark.

On Jan. 25, after nearly a year of negotiations, a package of eight bills known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act was introduced in the City Council. The legislation encourages police officers to issue civil penalties, rather than using criminal summonses or arrests, for low-level, nonviolent offenses. Mark-Viverito highlights the package of bills, which appears to have the blessing of Mayor Bill de Blasio, on Thursday, and explained that the Council would be moving it forward and building upon it.

In a statement, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson expressed support for Mark-Viverito’s announcements, saying, “I commend Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for placing criminal justice reform at the top of her legislative agenda….I look forward to working with the Speaker and our partners in government to continue to address this important citywide issue.” Thompson has held several events to help people clear arrest warrants and summonses.

Warrant amnesty, combined with the Criminal Justice Reform Act’s move to steer cases away from the criminal system and direct them to a civil court run by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings could go a long way toward the speaker’s goal of minimizing the number of New Yorkers who end up in the criminal justice system and on Riker’s Island.

But reducing that number must also involve efforts that “address the systemic issues that plague neighborhoods and start to actually fix them,” Mark-Viverito said, vowing the Council will do just that by passing legislation to ensure the city has a multi-agency plan to provide more social services that target problems like unemployment, high school dropout rates, and substance abuse in areas with high crime rates.

In a continued effort to bring increased transparency to the city’s jail system, this year the Council will pass legislation establishing an Inspector General for the Department of Correction, who will focus “on systemic issues in the city’s jail system, and will be modeled after the successful NYPD Inspector General established by the City Council in 2013,” Mark-Viverito said.

Speaking with members of the press after Mark-Viverito’s speech, Norman Seabrook, president of the city’s Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said he “applaud[s] the Speaker for her genuine feelings of trying to make a difference, but in order to make a difference you have to sit down with everyone at the to the people that do this for a living as opposed to the ones that just push a pencil.”

“Our job is care, custody, and control,” Seabrook said of those officers who work at and for the city’s jails. “In order to rebuild the system, reform has to be on both sides,” he added, later explaining that one side is those pushing reform and the other is police and correction leaders, as well as district attorneys.

Bringing all stakeholders together to plan reform is exactly what newly-retired Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, intends to do as chair of an independent commission to examine Rikers Island and “explore a community-based justice model.” Mark-Viverito first announced the creation of the commission during her State of the City address.

“I very much intend to have a broadly represented committee, particularly of the criminal justice community, and that includes all of the players,” Lippman told reporters after the speech. “I think I have a background that allows me to bring the different sides of the equation to this table, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

The commission will complement existing reform efforts by exploring ways to continue reducing pre-trial detention rates, move adolescents and the mentally ill off Rikers in the short term, and utilize more community courts and borough-based jail facilities.

Lippman’s firm, Latham and Watkins, which he joined after being forced to retire as chief judge due to age restrictions, will staff the commission and provide all the needed resources pro bono. The Center for Court Innovation, a criminal justice think tank, will also work with the commission, whose members will be selected by Lippman in consultation with Mark-Viverito and others.

“We are going to do the most careful, comprehensive look at Rikers that’s ever been done,” Lippman said, “and make very concrete, direct recommendations...What’s clear is that [Rikers] is central to the justice system here in our city, and it doesn’t work.” While the population at Rikers has already been shrinking, violence in the jails is a major problem, as is people being detained there for extended periods while they await trial for non-violent offenses.

Another important piece of minimizing the number of New Yorkers in the City’s jails is reducing the recidivism rate. “Every year,” Mark-Viverito said, “there are about 70,000 admissions to Rikers and other city jails - but only about 16 percent of those admitted are ultimately sentenced to prison.”

Yet even a brief stint in jail can have life-changing ramifications, she said. A few days in Rikers can cause someone to lose their job, and a record could prevent them from getting a new job or accessing other needed resources, causing them to fall into what Mark-Viverito calls an “endless cycle of recidivism.”

“Reducing recidivism must be a top priority,” Mark-Viverito said, and to that end she promised the Council will work with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to create a Municipal Division of Transition Services which will help make the reentry process for those exiting prison easier and more supportive by providing services like computer classes, resume building, drug treatment, and housing resources.

Another piece of the Council’s effort to reduce recidivism rates will be the development of a video visitation program for those who are incarcerated, as maintaining familial and social relationships has been proven to reduce recidivism. The program will allow families who cannot make the often day-long trip to Rikers Island to speak with their loved ones by visiting a local library or neighborhood center and using the video program.

The Council will also continue to call on the State to raise the age of criminal responsibility, so that 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer automatically tried as adults, Mark-Viverito said. New York is one of the two states in the country that still tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Governor Andrew Cuomo has pushed to raise the age, but has not been able to get legislation passed through the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Along with an intense focus on criminal justice reform, Mark-Viverito also reiterated her support for a $15 minimum wage, emphasized support for immigrants, including by increasing language access and translation services, announced plans to increase civic and youth engagement, outlined ways the city can improve the community planning process, and stressed greater investment in young women.

"The State of the City is strong, but its foundation must be strengthened. That foundation is New Yorkers themselves," Mark-Viverito said on Thursday. "It's the student eager to vote or the community fighting for more green space. It's the immigrant family starting a business or the single mother bringing her baby home for the first time. It's our city's seniors and their caregivers. It's the New Yorker struggling to find a home, or the young man languishing in Rikers. And it is every young woman looking up at the glass ceiling...It's New Yorkers who make New York great. And it's New Yorkers who need more justice."

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated.

Mark-Viverito 'Doubles Down' on Criminal Justice Reform in State of the City Thu, 11 Feb 2016 22:30:19 +0000