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Opinion

Penn Station Needs a Complete Overhaul. We Must Start Now.


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(photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


For decades, Penn Station has wreaked havoc on the lives of hardworking New Yorkers, and seriously stained our city’s reputation as a global cultural and economic hub. But all hope is not lost; the door is opening for significant improvements to finally be made.

We’re now just a few short years away from the opening of Moynihan Train Hall and East Side Access. These two important projects, which will temporarily reduce the number of passengers travelling through Penn, present a brief window for significant station improvements.

Transit experts have spoken extensively about the serious safety concerns within Penn Station—from overcrowded platforms, to a lack of accessible exits and signage on what to do in the event of an emergency. The recent announcement of an overhaul of the LIRR corridor and 7th Avenue entrance is a good first step, but there are a host of other improvements that should also be considered.

And beyond safety, it’s a matter of dignity, utility, and a vision for the future of the city we want to live in. Commuters shouldn’t have to settle with what we have.

They’ve seen a variety of great layouts and amenities – that work, by the way – at Washington D.C.’s Union Station, Boston’s South Station, and transit hubs overseas.

We need to look at Penn Station and the surrounding area in Midtown West comprehensively to solve this problem in a way that makes sense for commuters, residents, workers nearby, and New York as a whole.

Leading architects and designers have already created many informed and inspiring renderings and plans for what a new Penn Station could look like. While these designs are all different, they largely address the core issues of overcrowding, platform capacity, and accessibility.

Let’s be clear, Penn Station is not the way it is because of a lack of technical or planning knowhow.

It’s a political problem that can only be solved by bold, willing leadership that is committed to seeing this through from beginning to end.

It also means having a frank conversation about the future of Madison Square Garden, which sits atop the station—severely limiting natural light, air, and the ability to expand capacity.

For our leaders, fixing Penn Station must come down to our values as New Yorkers. We allowed our subways to enter a state of extreme disrepair that forces commuters onto already packed and delayed trains, or for some, abandoning the system all together. Deadlocked street traffic and slow bus speeds are the direct result of the failure to fix what’s going on underground. This is what happens when problems are left to fester.

If leaders don’t believe Penn Station is worth the investment of taxpayer dollars, they should be upfront about that and let voters know where they stand. If it’s a core issue they support, elected leaders should make it clear by calling for the creation of a Penn Station task force that would convene this year.

This task force should resemble the model used to evaluate congestion pricing and it should offer tangible next steps for a comprehensive fix—not a patchwork solution.

2019 has already been a unique year in Albany, with 39 new faces between the Assembly and Senate. Long Island was particularly active during the campaign season with several incumbents who were defeated—and is home to a major constituency that relies on Penn Station. As we rebuild our airports at JFK and LaGuardia and inaugurate new bridges like the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge spanning the Hudson, Penn Station must be our next big fix.

If we don’t get to work to fix Penn Station now, it won’t ever happen. It’s time to act.

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State Senator Brad Hoylman represents parts of Manhattan, including Penn Station. On Twitter @BradHoylman.

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Missing Pieces of the Criminal Justice Reform Conversation


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(photo: Spencer T Tucker/City Council)


Many justice reformers welcome increased political support for constructive systemic changes. New York state government, for example, recently enacted reforms aimed at restricting the use of cash bail and reducing misdemeanor arrests. Many Democratic presidential candidates pointedly decry mass incarceration and our "broken" criminal justice system.

The most positive feature of this shifting landscape is the moral concern that it reflects, the relatively new recognition among pundits, politicians, and broader public that our criminal justice system is marked by a stark racial bias and that it undeniably violates our nation's core principle of, as Thomas Jefferson put it, providing "equal and exact justice" for all people.

What's missing, though, is certainty that all the attention will lead to meaningful changes in on-the-ground practices.

For instance, New York’s bail law includes significant exceptions regarding who can benefit from its provisions: judges can still set cash bail for New Yorkers with open warrants and with failures to appear in their histories. That’s many thousands of people.

Plus, and this point applies to all the reforms enacted, the agencies mainly responsible for the system’s current abuses, district attorneys and police, are still in power. They are in charge of implementing the changes and have ways at their disposal, overcharging being the most handy, to undermine them if they so choose.

Also, none of the Democratic presidential candidates who engage in indignant rhetoric on the issue have presented the kind of specific steps needed to reverse mass incarceration and to end systemic racism. We know from research and experience that the typical proposals that they and other mainstream politicians offer — body cameras, community policing, increased diversity, even marijuana legalization — will not make meaningful differences in current toxic practices. Jurisdictions that have enacted these changes still lock up far too many Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are Americans of color.

What's missing are policy reforms, proposed or enacted, that lead to institutional changes that are fundamental -- could say radical, in the sense that they address the "root" of the problem -- and significantly cut into the currently unchecked power of police and prosecutors.

One such step would involve repealing mandatory sentencing laws. It was the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws -- enacted in New York in 1973, requiring a minimum prison term of 15 years (up to life) for the sale of 1 ounce or possession of 2 ounces of a hard drug -- that jump started the extraordinary expansion in imprisonment in the United States that we dub the "mass incarceration" movement. Eventually every state in the country and the federal government passed mandatory sentencing statutes, and the number of incarcerated Americans went from about 300,000 in the early 1970s to about 2.4 million today.

Abolishing these laws and restoring judicial discretion would substantially reduce the power of district attorneys to control case outcomes. Inevitably, courts would imprison a much smaller proportion of the people who the police funnel into the system.

Police practices are the most compelling factor driving the system's stark racial bias, especially in our nation's large cities. Jails hold mainly black and brown people because police arrest mainly black and brown people. Visit our city's arraignment courts where arrests are processed and a white defendant is a rare sight. On Rikers Island over 90% of the people locked up are non-white, there for two main reasons: they are too poor to afford bail and a NYPD officer has arrested them. Simply put, we cannot uproot the racism plaguing our justice system without drastically changing deeply discriminatory police practices.

Abusive police practices are firmly entrenched and long-standing -- New York City’s early civic leaders, for example, established the NYPD in 1845, expecting it to control and contain two unruly groups new to the city: recent Irish immigrants and free black people ("free" because the state abolished slavery in 1827). Modest modifications, like issuing criminal summonses instead of arresting people and implicit bias training, won't do. The changes must cut into the police's absolute power, which, after all, corrupts absolutely, to end persistent ways officers violate certain Americans' rights and well-being.

Specific examples include: ending quotas that pressure officers to make unnecessary arrests and stopping "broken windows" tactics targeting poor people of color for infractions virtually ignored in white communities; eliminating arenas of responsibility police now have that are better addressed by social services like school safety, sex work, homelessness, and mental health; and substantially cutting police budgets and personnel.

In September 1955,  after learning that an all-white Mississippi jury acquitted the men who tortured and killed Emmett Till, Chester Himes, a novelist based in Harlem, commented: "The real horror comes when your dead brain must face the fact that we as a nation don't want it to stop. If we wanted to, we would." Now, as was true 64 years ago when Till's murderers went free, no mainstream politician will back the "radical" measures needed to end biased and abusive policing. Few, if any, will call for repealing mandatory sentencing laws -- all too electorally risky.

But if our leaders want to move beyond hand-ringing expressions of moral concern about our justice system's inhumane practices, if they want to fulfill our nation's founding "justice for all" promise, they, or, perhaps, even just one of them, will come forward and, in response to Mr. Himes' plaint, state: "Now we will."

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Bob Gangi is the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP). On Twitter @GangiFromPROP.

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How to Address Anti-Semitism in New York City, and Beyond


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(photo: Ed Reed and Paige Polk/Mayoral Photography Office)


Like so many Jews, we are horrified and dismayed at the recent attacks on visibly Jewish people in New York City, in particular Hasidic and Haredi men. Anti-Semitic violence is on the upswing in the U.S. and in our city.

The NYPD reported 145 hate crimes between January and April; 82 of those incidents, 57%, were anti-Jewish. Hate crimes in general rose 67% in the first quarter of this year, and anti-Semitic hate crimes in particular increased by 82% over a similar period last year. White Christian nationalist violence, stoked by the election of Donald Trump, is on the rise — from New Zealand to New York.

This trend is unacceptable, but we can’t arrest or guard our way to real safety — the solution lies with communities.

Between attacks on Jewish people on the streets of New York, and the murders of Jews in our synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, we know that we need to address security concerns in a new way. So we understand why 39 members of the New York City Council, led by members of the Council’s Jewish Caucus, recently signed a letter urging Mayor de Blasio to use city funds to pay for armed, off-duty NYPD officers to guard houses of worship.

We all want to feel safe, especially in our churches, synagogues, and mosques, but city-funded armed police guards actually make some of us less safe, and cause many Jewish people of color, especially black Jews, to feel unwelcome in Jewish institutions. The truth is, policing cannot solve our problems — we will never arrest our way out of anti-Semitism.

As the city struggles to find money to deal with crises in homelessness, public housing, education, and more, paying cops to be security guards represents a back-door source of additional funding for the NYPD. This only escalates New York’s dramatic over-investment in the security state, instead of investing in our future.

We refuse to downplay the profound threat of anti-Semitic violence, or to dismiss the real fear and pain our community feels in this moment; yet we believe that there is a better way for the Jewish community to protect itself: by preventing hate violence in the first place. Armed guards are not a panacea — data show that the presence of police can actually attract shooters, and that, too often, police officers shoot bystanders in response to an attack, increasing the bloodshed rather than preventing it. In addition, arresting a suspect after an incident does not address the underlying tensions and ideologies that lead to hate violence; and increased penalties for hate crimes are unlikely to deter assailants from committing acts of violence.

Further, because communities of color are systematically overpoliced, a response to hate violence that emphasizes policing will inevitably have a negative impact on those communities, and reinforce the racist narrative that black people are more responsible for anti-Semitism than white Christians and other groups. (According to the NYPD’s own statistics, of the 69 anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2018 that resulted in an arrest, 40 of the alleged perpetrators were white, while 25 were black; nationally, from 2009–2018, 73% of all fatalities by violent extremists were caused by right wing actors.)

If we want to focus on prevention in New York City, the best approach is the Hate Violence Prevention Initiative that a coalition of Jewish, Arab, LGBTQ, and immigrant community organizations have presented to the New York City Council. The communities that these groups represent share a mutual interest in standing up to hate-motivated violence and white nationalism. All of us understand that hate violence and bias incidents can only be prevented in local communities, by local communities — not by police or prosecutors.

We need approaches that prevent violence through education and community-building, interrupt violence through community-based upstander/bystander trainings and rapid response at the local level, and repair damage through restorative justice, counseling, and peer-support. We oppose “zero tolerance” policies — an approach that is geared toward impressive sound bites, not effective hate violence reduction.

The Hate Violence Prevention Initiative will fund preventative education, restorative justice, upstander/bystander intervention trainings, and rapid response within communities when an incident has occurred.

"As a Jew of color, the initiative's focus on restorative justice also works better to provide safety for my community and all Jews, not only white Jews. A police presence outside a house of worship puts black Jews in danger." —co-author Arielle Korman

If we are serious about confronting the rise in hate crimes, we need an approach led by organizations in affected communities that is designed to confront the white supremacist ideology and anti-Semitic ideas fueling those crimes, and to ease the intra-communal tensions that surface them.

Up until now, the city has profoundly under-funded this type of approach. The dominant response to all hate violence incidents has been to call for increased policing and the filing of hate-crimes charges. We can do better. The recent arrest of a 12-year-old for chalking swastikas on a school playground demonstrates just how far we are from a targeted and proportional response that is likely to reduce hate violence in the future.

We find the rise in attacks on Jews terrifying but we know we’re not alone. We are inspired by the outpouring of care and solidarity from our neighbors when incidents of hate violence occur, and we are proud of the ways that many Jews have shown up for others in these difficult times.

For better or for worse, many of New York’s communities have a stake in standing up to right-wing, white nationalist ideology and the violence that it inspires. We believe that the only effective response to hate violence is one that cuts these ideas off at the root, and that binds together all of the communities impacted by bigotry — not one that pits us against each other.

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Martha A. Ackelsberg is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emerita of Government and Professor Emerita of the Study of Women & Gender, an author, and a member leader at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ). Arielle Korman is a graduate student at Columbia University, a cultural organizer, a member leader at JFREJ, and a co-founder of JFREJ’s Jews of Color Torah Academy.

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Stop the Rat Takeover with the Humble Brown Bin


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(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


When the New York Times announced that Rats Are Taking Over New York City, the widely-shared article and subsequent discussion overlooked one obvious remedy: reboot New York City’s stalled, neglected Organics Collection Program, and use it to take away a primary food source for rats near residential buildings.

Organics collection was introduced in New York City in 2013 and later incorporated into Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC plan, which includes an ambitious “zero waste” goal: that the city will send nothing to landfills by 2030.

For residents in all of Manhattan and many neighborhoods in other boroughs, the city provides free plastic bins for curbside collection of organics: food and yard waste that make up 34% of all residential waste according to a 2017 New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) study cited at a 2018 City Council hearing. However, the program has stalled -– the city missed its planned deadline of having organics collection in every neighborhood by the end of 2018.

In the areas where the program currently operates, less than 11% of organic waste makes it into the brown bins. So most of New York City’s food waste winds up mixed in with other trash left in plastic bags on sidewalks overnight, and provides a ready food source for rats right next to residential buildings.

Rats can tote a slice of pizza down stairs or climb a subway pole, but they’ll never open the latch on top of a brown organics bin set out for curbside pickup. If New Yorkers could be persuaded (or mandated) to put all their household food waste into these city-provided bins, rats would be locked out of their current all-night buffet on our sidewalks.

In May 2018 after the DSNY froze the expansion of the organics collection program, Commissioner Kathryn Garcia promised “intensive outreach” to “grow participation” in areas where the program exists, but it is hard to find evidence of any such outreach.

nycha mayor dry1The building where I live has been using a city organics bin for our food waste since the program began, but I’ve watched every other building on our block stop participating in the program. Here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I’ve never seen any sort of outreach from the city to encourage participation, and in the last two years it has become more difficult to participate. DSNY used to drop off replacements for lost bins, but now it requires residents to drive to its office to pick up a new one. DSNY has also reduced the organics pickup schedule to one day per week instead of two.

The city missed an opportunity in not connecting organics collection to the rat problem. “Zero Waste” by 2030 has the same flaw as “Vision Zero” for traffic deaths -– it’s hard to see it as achievable, or as anything more than a pie-in-the-sky promise. “Separate all your garbage now and we’ll fix climate change in some future mayor’s term” is not nearly as compelling as “Put your food waste in this bin now so you don’t have to dodge rats when you walk out your front door.”

When the city gets complaints about rats in an area, in addition to putting out poison and adding a $7,000 solar-powered trash can to a local park, city workers also should help every residence and business in the area start using organics bins. Some advertising and hands-on assistance would make a huge difference, and make long-term environmental goals possible by focusing on New Yorkers’ quality of life in the short term.

Elected officials are often eager to declare an emergency and announce a quick, expensive response when a long-standing problem pops up in the news. Mayor de Blasio did this in 2017 when he proposed a $32 million “Rat Reduction Plan,” which included a bill to require some buildings to put out their trash at 4 a.m. (that bill never passed). Statistics cited in the Times story show the plan didn’t lead to long-term reductions. Persistent problems demand persistent effort and consistent messaging, especially when the solution requires millions of people to change their daily habits.

When every building in New York City has an organics bin, and every New Yorker has heard how this program can improve their quality of life, then we’ll be a step closer to a sustainable future, and also less likely to step on a rat when we walk down the sidewalk.

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Tony Melone is a freelance musician and volunteer activist in Brooklyn. On Twitter @tonymelone.

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Ending Health Disparities That Disproportionately Impact New Yorkers of Color


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Council Member Carlina Rivera, left, one of the co-authors (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


New York City is one of the largest, most diverse, and advanced cities in the country – in fact, New Yorkers are living one-and-a-half years longer than a decade ago and nearly nine years longer than 25 years ago. Yet behind that positive sheen lies a shameful truth – our city persistently falls short in health outcomes for people of color.

As a New York City lawmaker chairing the committee that oversees our city’s largest public health system and as the founder and leader of the city’s largest physician-led nonprofit health care network, we are troubled that despite economic and technological leadership, our city continues to fall short on health basics.

Persistent health disparities are spread across all five of New York City’s boroughs, most noticeably in communities of color. So, with another Minority Health Month in the rear-view mirror, we are hoping to spur solutions and bring much needed attention to these crises beyond just one month. Whether it is tackling the epidemic of diabetes, maternal mortality rates, or depression and suicides, we can no longer take on these issues without highlighting the disparate rates at which these medical issues affect New Yorkers of color.

And the solutions to these challenges can’t just come from one sector. We need policymakers, community doctors on the front lines, and healthcare experts to all fight together for essential access to preventive care, increasing basic health education and literacy, and addressing the social determinants of health.

Our urban reality is stark: compared to their white neighbors, Latinx women are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer and are 70% more likely to receive late or no prenatal care; Asian-Americans are 30% more likely to be diagnosed with tuberculosis and 10% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes; and African-Americans are 60% more likely to experience a stroke that could end in them becoming permanently disabled.

In addition, key survey findings in SOMOS’s State of Latino Health report highlighted a series of health disparities Latino New Yorkers struggle with every day. For example, 33 percent of Latinos don’t think people in their community get the health care they need, and 61 percent of providers think that Latinos face unique barriers that keep them from accessing health services.

Many of these conditions are exacerbated by what are known as social determinants of health, or more simply, the conditions in which New Yorkers live. These social determinants are attached to economic stability, education level, social and community context, health and health care; and neighborhood and built environment. And, every single one of these factors can determine a wide range of health risk outcomes.

Overall, New Yorkers who live in poverty and cultural isolation, including immigrant and first-generation New Yorkers, live underserved and in a political climate hostile to the historically disenfranchised. Put simply, this crisis is decades in the making, which is why the City Council Committee on Hospitals has been dedicated to examining these issues at our hearings and advocating for solutions from our city’s biggest medical providers.

We must improve health literacy through building awareness – and use cutting edge technology to meet diverse New Yorkers where they live and how they receive information. New York City has more languages and dialects than the United Nations, and we are stronger and more unique for it – yet in many communities our access to internet services is far too low. We need to translate simple, effective health literacy messages from nutrition and exercise to smoking cessation in order to better reach more families and employ digital and handheld technology to carry the message.

We must make sure nutrition and healthy eating are no longer the purview of elites. It’s worth repeating that farmers markets and supermarkets that specialize in natural, low-calorie, low-sugar, low-fat foods are economically far out of reach for far too many neighborhoods. Lowering food costs and making healthy food far more accessible and culturally relatable can make a huge difference in basic health for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who want to eat healthily but simply can’t afford it or aren’t exposed to it. And we know that local vendors who partake in farmers’ markets and sell to health food markets would like to reach more consumers.

Together, we are pursuing a collaborative agenda defined by our partnership, expertise and unique lived realities.

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City Council Member Carlina Rivera represents the 2nd district, which includes portions of the Lower East Side in Manhattan, is Chair of the Council’s Committee on Hospitals and Co-Chair of the Council's Women’s Caucus. Dr. Ramon Tallaj is Chairman of SOMOS, a non-profit, physician-led network of more than 2,000 health care providers serving over 700,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in New York City, with providers delivering culturally competent care to patients in some of New York City’s most vulnerable populations.

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Our Work on Public Campaign Financing is Not Done


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the authors: Assemblymember Niou, center, & Senator Ramos, left (photo: @NYCComptroller)


We’ve got a big money problem here in New York, and we hear loud and clear the New Yorkers who are calling for a small donor solution in the form of public financing of elections.

Public financing became a top issue in state budget negotiations earlier this year because of public demand. The plan for a commission to now determine the parameters of public financing of elections was placed in a large budget bill in the final hours of budget negotiations, making it nearly impossible to oppose as legislators.

But we must introduce and move public financing of elections bills this legislative session -- before it ends June 19 -- to fix, or overturn, a weak commission result. We’re committed to ensuring that we end this year with a strong public financing program in New York, whether via commission, legislation, or a combination of both.

It’s important to push this issue ahead and not simply allow the commission to unfold without additional legislation for several reasons.

As women of color and as elected leaders representing people from all walks of life, we are here to bring change and shift power away from big donors and to the people of New York.

Our elections are currently dominated by a tiny number of big donors. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, just 100 donors outspent all the 137,000 small donors combined last year. It’s time for regular constituents to get their say through a 6-to-1 small donor match, lifting the voices of everyday New Yorkers and fundamentally changing the way politicians fundraise by allowing them to focus on those who may only give $20.

Those who oppose reform point to the price tag with a high estimate of $100 million per year (a small fraction of one percent of our state’s budget) as an excuse to avoid changing the status quo. They say we can’t afford it. You know what costs more? Corruption.

When elected leaders are forced to spend their time rubbing shoulders with big donors—who tend to be predominantly corporate donors—we end up with expensive, unnecessary, out-of-touch policies that hurt the rest of us. We also shut out people with a desire to serve their communities but without connections to big donors from running for office. These systematic barriers block women and people of color—in particular women of color—from running and winning public office.

Following damaging decisions by the Supreme Court that now allow unlimited money into our elections, public financing of elections is the only real way to counter the corrosive influence of super PACs—and we have a chance to show the nation how to get it done.

In Connecticut, after a small donor public financing system was put in place, lawmakers moved forward policies to end corporate giveaways and pushed ahead issues that are meaningful to communities of color and other underrepresented communities.

Once public financing was in place, leaders passed mandatory paid sick days, increased the minimum wage, instituted in-state tuition for undocumented students, and helped low-income and working individuals and families by adopting an Earned Income Tax Credit.

In another illustrative example, they also ended the practice of returning unclaimed bottle deposits to the beverage industry. The influence of beer and soda distributors long kept this giveaway worth up to $24 million annually in place. Now the money can be redirected to important public programs.

To ensure a similar result—a democracy that is not beholden to wealthy special interests and instead is responsive to the needs of constituents—in New York, we must ensure a strong Public Financing and Elections Commission that gets to work soon with diverse and credible commissioners to hold transparent proceedings with ample room for public input.

As lawmakers, we have to be prepared for the possibility of a weak commission result. Our responsibility does not end with appointing commissioners. It’s our duty to ensure a strong public financing program, and that means having legislation ready should we need to improve upon the commission’s recommendations.

Our mission is clear. We must deliver a strong small donor public financing program by the end of the year to shift power to the people of New York and away from big donors. We’ve come too far to settle for anything less.

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State Senator Jessica Ramos represents parts of Queens. Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou represents parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @jessicaramos & @yuhline.

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Including Community Voices - and Services - as We Close Rikers and Build New Jails


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


If you would have told New Yorkers seven years ago that the jails on Rikers Island would be closing, they would have not believed you.

Until recently, shutting down the infamous complex was roundly dismissed as a radical idea that was not likely to be achieved during our lifetimes. However, what was once a dream for many people is now closer to becoming reality due to the hard work of brave New York City advocates and a number of forward-thinking organizations who have worked tirelessly to shed light on the principal concerns that fueled the Close Rikers campaign.

We must continue to fight for the decarceration of New Yorkers by demanding bail reform and alternatives to incarceration for all who are awaiting trial or are sentenced to one year or less in our jails. Over the last year, community conversations about the plan to close Rikers jails have shifted to a debate about the location and heights of the new community facilities that will replace the jails on Rikers. As we continue listening and creating a dialogue with our neighbors, we cannot lose sight of our collective mission: to build a more humane justice system.

The question we must ask is: how can any new facility and its surroundings reflect who we are as a community?

Research on reducing recidivism and incarceration stresses the importance of a multi-faceted approach. Strengthening social ties through community programming, improving economic opportunity through job training and quality education, and expanding access to quality housing and healthcare all contribute to better outcomes for at-risk populations.

I know firsthand how important these programs are to help change lives and communities as a whole. In Mott Haven in the Bronx, the community I call home, I am part of a community-based organization that stresses the importance of education, civic participation, and economic development to people of all ages.

I have led educational programs, life-skills development trainings, and individualized support to get at-risk youth back on the right track. In fact, three young people who were once labeled at-risk and disconnected youth used these programs as an opportunity to redefine themselves into successful young adults who now give back to their community, and I later hired each of them as program directors. They have become some of Mott Haven’s most vocal community leaders.

In the coming years, advocating for these programs will become critically important to overhauling a status quo that simply has not been working.

Additionally, according to the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, New York City will save over $1.6 billion annually if the jails on Rikers close and a modern, smaller system replaces them. Our communities will need to decide how that money is spent.

Advocates must push to have savings from the closure of the Rikers jails reinvested back into the communities that have historically shouldered the cost of our unjust legal system. As the city looks to place jails in areas like Mott Haven, near my home in the Bronx, we must ensure that these projects include services and resources that have a positive effect on the community and reduce the incarcerated population. As a Bronx Neighborhood Advisory Committee member, this is exactly what I and other members have been advocating for as we advise city government on how to proceed.

The Bronx Neighborhood Advisory Committee is a diverse group of committed and dedicated Bronx residents who have been working diligently to secure true sustained investment in the Mott Haven community. We have spent months developing recommendations focused on improving quality of life by ensuring that our neighborhood receives services and investments in the areas of health, recreation, economic development, education, and housing.

Some of these recommendations include building affordable housing for Bronx residents, investing in youth by upgrading community centers in the surrounding areas and providing programming, and providing healthy food options for the residents of Mott Haven while also educating the community on healthy food practices to transform Mott Haven from a food desert into a healthy food oasis.

Doing so will help make our children more healthy and give them a real shot at success in the future while also giving Bronx community members an opportunity to participate in our economy, establish businesses, and help our community flourish.

As the city continues to seek community input on plans to open more humane jails in our neighborhoods, not only do we have an opportunity to bring real investments in our community, but the chance to be on the right side of history. We have an opportunity to fundamentally change our justice system and take a significant step toward ending the era of mass incarceration.

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Althea Stevens is a Mott Haven community member and part of the Neighborhood Advisory Council, which has advised the city on its borough-based jails plan.

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Ensuring Others Don’t Face the Injustice I Did: Why Rory Lancman is the Right Candidate for Queens DA


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Valerie Bell, the author, left; Rory Lancman; and Gwen Carr


On November 25, 2006, my son Sean Bell was killed in a hail of 50 bullets from the NYPD on his wedding day. The officers who killed my son were acquitted due to the lack of an unbiased relationship between the judge and the Queens district attorney. Sean never received the justice he deserved and the men that murdered my son suffered no consequences under the law.

Subsequent to this marred process of criminal justice, I worked diligently alongside other mothers who were victims of police brutality to request Governor Cuomo use his authority under the law to appoint a Special Prosecutor in the Attorney General's office to investigate police use of deadly force. The governor supported our view and a Special Prosecutor was granted.

Since meeting City Council Member Rory Lancman, I’ve learned he has always been in relentless pursuit of police accountability. He has been, and continues to be a guardian against the racial disparities of law enforcement in communities of color, and this is why I am supporting Rory Lancman to be the next District Attorney in Queens.

As I have seen firsthand, criminal justice in Queens is stuck in the past, but for the first time in almost 30 years, the people of Queens have the power to elect a new District Attorney. The current Queens DA's office led the opposition to creating a Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission, and is the only DA's office in New York City that refuses to have a wrongful conviction review unit.

The office has opposed closing Rikers Island, and refuses to follow the lead of other District Attorneys who no longer prosecute most fare evasion and marijuana possession cases; 90% of such prosecutions are people of color. Queens’ 2.3 million people deserve better than a 'lock ‘em up and throw away the key' mentality.

For these reasons and more, Rory Lancman needs to be the next District Attorney in Queens.

Rory understands that our criminal justice system is built on a foundation of institutional racism. That racism manifests itself in a number of ways: massive discrepancies in communities of color for low-level arrests, broken windows policing that terrorizes black and brown communities, and a system that sets up even innocent people to plead guilty rather than endure the nightmare of Rikers Island while waiting for their day in court.

My family never received justice for what happened to Sean. Gwen Carr and her family never received justice for what happened to Eric Garner. Instead of just lamenting problems, Rory has gotten to work. He’s sponsored legislation that would outlaw police chokeholds, and has fought against the misuse of New York's so-called “50-A Law” to shield police officers from public scrutiny of prior misconduct. As our next Queens District Attorney, Rory will not tolerate police malfeasance, whether it is violence against law-abiding citizens or perjury in the courtroom.

Finally, Rory will be a true criminal justice reformer at a time when Queens desperately needs it. Rory’s vision is simple: create a fair system that treats everyone equally, and that views incarceration as a last resort for real crimes. Too many of our young people are given criminal records for the rest of their lives that make it hard for them to get an education, job, and housing.

On June 25, Queens will face a stark choice in choosing a new District Attorney. The District Attorney has incredible power over people's lives. Queens is long overdue for a true reformer who will make sure the law works for everyone, and will hold even the powerful accountable. That person is Rory Lancman.

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Valerie Bell is the mother of Sean Bell.

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Taxi Medallion Exposé Drives Home Key Budget Lesson


medallions oped

(Photo: Ed Reed/City Council)


Last week, the New York Times published another blockbuster investigative series by reporter Brian Rosenthal, this time on the misleading and predatory practices which led to inflated prices of New York City yellow taxi medallions over the last decade.

The compelling stories of taxi drivers who thought they were buying into the American dream by purchasing taxi medallions, only to find their incomes drastically reduced by the competition of Uber and Lyft, has been a topic of public discussion for some time, but Rosenthal’s reporting provides new and detailed documentation of how lenders and brokers drove up the prices and encouraged purchases without concern as to whether the buyers had the wherewithal to repay their loans.

The story is reminiscent of the over-leveraged home buying encouraged and condoned by financial services firms and banks that contributed to the national housing bubble and the recession in 2008.   

In his second article on the taxi industry, Rosenthal focused on the regulatory agencies that seemingly should have known something was wrong when medallion prices skyrocketed but did nothing to intervene. Indeed, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission even ran ads promoting medallion sales as a great investment. State and city officials are now investigating; legislators are looking at ways to aid struggling medallion owners.

The situation of many taxi drivers and their families (especially those who have died by suicide) is unspeakably sad and it is understandable that elected leaders want to help them. But the rise and fall of taxi medallion prices also contains a larger message and lesson for government about the dangers and unintended consequences of relying on one-time revenues to fund government expenses.

Fiscal watchdogs warn against reliance on “one-shots” because they artificially inflate the amount of revenue available and will have to be replaced by other resources over the long term. That is why organizations like Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) urge that one-time windfalls be used to pay down debt or bolster reserves, not to start new programs or pay for employee salaries and benefits.

CBC has repeatedly criticized the city for including large amounts of anticipated taxi medallion sales revenue in its financial plans since it began doing so in 2011:

“Balancing the budget with these one-shots does not address the structural problems– notably, escalating health insurance and debt service costs—but masks the problem temporarily and delays the discourse needed to adopt more enduring, if politically tougher, solutions. In addition, one-shots can be unreliable; if something does not work as anticipated, the savings will not materialize.”

The same concern holds true for one-shots at the state level. New York state government has received over $11 billion in one-time revenue from settlements of litigation with financial institutions over the past five years. This funding has been used for a variety of initiatives, from infusions into economic development schemes like the “Buffalo Billion” to front end development and construction costs of the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. Regardless of the merits of these projects, it would have been more prudent and appropriate to use these one-time revenues to reduce the state’s indebtedness and/or increase its rainy day reserves to be better prepared for the inevitable time when there is an economic downturn.

And Rosenthal’s investigation highlights another reason for avoiding reliance on one-shots: not only do they obscure the city’s true fiscal picture but they can create pressure on officials – albeit sometimes unintentional or even unconscious – to maximize resources to fill a budgetary need.

The city has repeatedly included as much as $1.5 billion in taxi medallion sales revenue in its four-year financial plans. This is a great deal of revenue and suggestions that it might be achieved through unfair means would probably not have been favorably received by budget directors happy to have this revenue in their projections to reduce out-year deficits. No one was motivated to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The state and city comptrollers have joined CBC in criticizing the city’s reliance on medallion sales receipts and the amount expected has been reduced and stretched out over longer lengths of time as the market changed and then tanked, and was completely removed from the mayor’s executive budget starting in fiscal year 2019 and since.

It would be a great irony if, instead of leading to more than a billion in revenue, the taxi medallion market’s problems lead to significant city spending to purchase owners’ loans or bail them out in some other way, as some legislators are contemplating. The lesson is that when a sudden and untested revenue source appears, don’t count on it because it may well be too good to be true.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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New York City Must Fully Restore Article 6 Public Health Budget Cuts


mathur inte selman

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


As health care providers and public health advocates, we believe that all New Yorkers deserve access to high-quality, comprehensive, compassionate health care. We believe that health care is a human right—not a luxury for the privileged. 

And yet, New York State has cut vital public health programs for our city—and only our city. Known as Article 6, these state funds help support critical services provided by local health departments, including immunizations; tuberculosis outreach, education and testing; and sexual and reproductive health. In New York’s most recent budget, New York City’s reimbursement for this program was cut by 16%, resulting in more than $62 million in lost funding to essential city public health programs.

The Mayor’s Executive Budget plan includes $59 million in funding to restore cuts to the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene administrative programs and organizations funded by the administration. However, it does not cover the millions in lost Article 6 matching funding for City Council discretionary-budget public health programs, such as those that support immigrant health, health education, health insurance access, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, child and maternal health, viral hepatitis, and more.

Currently, the City Council estimates cuts will result in no less than $3.4 million in lost funding across dozens of community-based organizations.

We are calling upon Mayor de Blasio and the City Council to stand up for our communities and say no to these cuts to our health care funding. We are calling for this funding to be fully restored in the city’s fiscal year 2020 budget, which is due by July 1, including full funding for Council-discretionary funded nonprofit providers.

Funding for City Council public health initiatives is a small fraction of the $90-plus billion city budget. We can't afford to not invest in public health.

Lack of access to quality health care can lead to devastating outcomes, from premature death to high prevalence of chronic diseases, especially in our most vulnerable communities. The leading causes of illness, disability, and death in New York City are largely preventable. Clinical encounters with medical staff are critical opportunities for health promotion and disease prevention and treatment, yet many New Yorkers face egregious barriers to accessing care.

New York City has a long way to go before all our communities are able to access the health care they need and deserve to lead healthy, autonomous lives. We are on the ground every day, from the Bronx to Staten Island, providing care to those who need it most. We still have so much work to do—and what we need is more support for our lifesaving work, not a budget cut that threatens our progress and our communities’ health and futures.

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By Anthony Feliciano, Executive Director of Commission on the Public’s Health System; Laura McQuade, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City; Mark Harrington, Executive Director of Treatment Action Group; Jennifer March, Executive Director, Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York; and Charles King, CEO and co-founder, Housing Works.

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More Sites, Better Democracy: Board of Elections Must Get Early Voting Right


de Blasio early voting new york city

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Early voting has finally come to our state, but it won’t work in our city unless the City Board of Elections ensures there are enough voting sites. That needs to happen, and it needs to happen now for our 3 million immigrants, our communities of color and every New Yorker who has a hard time voting on Election Day.

Later today, the BOE is due to announce how many early voting poll sites New York City will have for the November election – the first time New Yorkers will have the right to vote early.

The preliminary list the BOE released last month, which included just 38 sites, was not enough and seemed designed to undermine the idea of early voting itself. Let’s think about how preposterous just 38 voting sites would be in a city that stretches out over 300 square miles, and how far out of the way New Yorkers may need to travel to get to the nearest early voting site assigned to them. For example, if you live in upper Manhattan but want to vote early near your job downtown, or even if you want to vote close to home but the nearest of just 38 sites is too far, you won’t be able to under BOE's plan. This is restrictive and counter intuitive to the spirit and letter of the law, which is supposed to make voting as convenient as possible. New Yorkers deserve more time to participate in our democracy, not just on Election Day.

Early voting gives New Yorkers nine days before Election Day to cast their ballot – including two weekends. That isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity for millions of citizens whose schedules are filled to the brim with work, school and/or family commitments. The fact that until now New York State has restricted voting to a single day has contributed to two awful realities: voter turnout has been at historic lows and Election Day is plagued with long lines for those who do show up to exercise their right. This is on top of arcane, confusing rules that are near impossible to comprehend, particularly for limited-English-proficient New Yorkers and immigrant citizens.

The last November General Election was a prime example of many of the challenges New Yorkers faced when they went out to the polls, making lines even longer than usual. At one point, ballot scanners that had been malfunctioning all day at M.S. 80 in the Bronx all broke down, bringing voting to a dead stop. This same problem at St. Cecilia's in Greenpoint led to hundreds of voters waiting up to four hours to cast their ballot. At other sites like Christ Church in Bay Ridge, the size of the new ballots caused a myriad of scanning problems that led to similar, massive delays.

The problem will only get worse as the BOE continues to ignore calls for reform and as New Yorkers get more energized for upcoming elections.

We have a chance to make things right. This year, the New York Legislature did its job and passed a package of election reforms, including early voting. But the BOE – which is funded by New York City and yet independent of City control – isn’t living up to its responsibility.

Under the current proposal, more than a third, or 21 out of a total of 51 City Council districts, wouldn’t have a single early voting site. In the borough of Queens alone, there are almost 1.2 million voters and more than 1 million immigrants. Yet, the BOE’s initial plan sited just seven early voting locations in the whole borough. With xenophobia and racism rearing their heads at the highest levels of government, the BOE has effectively excluded immigrant neighborhoods and communities of color from proximity to early voting sites, suppressing the voices of minorities in our elections. The BOE can and must do better.

Today we’re waiting to see whether the BOE takes up the City’s offer and expands its original 38 sites to 100. With the 2020 elections fast approaching, it’s vitally important that we maximize opportunities for our city’s five million registered voters. Their voices guide the City in all that it does.

This is a moment that should anger anyone who believes in democracy, anyone who believes in the empowerment of our City’s immigrants, and the rights of all eligible voters to make their voices heard.

New York City has provided $75 million for a robust early voting program, and now the BOE needs to step up to the plate and do its job by making early voting available to every registered voter, in every borough. Otherwise, the promise of early voting and of this democracy will be betrayed.

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Bill de Blasio is Mayor of New York City. Steve Choi is Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition. On Twitter @NYCMayor & @SteveChoiNY.

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