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Opinion

Dominating Harvard, and Redemption


bard prison initiative

(photo: @BPIBard)


One of the oldest and highest-regarded debating teams in the world just got beat by a team of incarcerated New Yorkers. But we shouldn’t be surprised; they’ve done it before. In addition to this most recent match with Cambridge, the Bard Prison Initiative debate team’s 9-2 record includes wins against Harvard, Morehouse, and the University of Pennsylvania.

For 20 years, BPI has been championing the talents and potential of underestimated students, and debate, it turns out, is just one of the things our fellow New Yorkers are really good at.

For too long, we have held low expectations for whole groups of our neighbors: confining people to extended periods of incarceration; inadequately supporting their personal, educational, and professional growth; and then expecting them to return home and somehow overcome all of the barriers put in their way.

As we reevaluate how criminal justice should work in New York City, BPI and its alumni are a powerful example of what’s possible when we invest in incarcerated women and men and support them as they return home as our neighbors, colleagues, and friends.

For 20 years, BPI has operated an ambitious college, now in six New York state prisons. Close individual attention and a vibrant academic community – the same experience students get at leading colleges – propel BPI students into ambitious academic work and, when they come home to New York City, into meaningful professional careers.

A new documentary film, College Behind Bars, produced by Ken Burns, will provide an unprecedented perspective of their stories when it airs nationally on PBS later this year. 

College in prison and support for alumni returning home helps formerly incarcerated people rebuild lives, and it also saves taxpayers money. The RAND Corporation estimates that every dollar spent on education for incarcerated students saves four to five dollars because those students return to prison at much lower rates.

BPI alumni are a model of that: more than 95% of them stay out of prison, in comparison to just 58% of formerly incarcerated New Yorkers more broadly. BPI alumni do much more than stay out of prison: they become our treasured neighbors and colleagues. You’ve probably worked with, lived next to, or passed one of these alums on the street today. 

BPI alumni are having a profound impact across the New York City landscape, changing the face of philanthropy, public health, community service, business, and technology. They work at a diverse array of organizations including the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Harlem United, Bronx Defenders, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, the Center for Court Innovation, the New York City Department of Health, Hugo Neu Corporation, L&M Development – the list goes on. 

It’s not just incarcerated and formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who benefit from this type of investment in education and professional development. At the Brooklyn Public Library, an extraordinary new college was launched last year. BPL partnered with the Bard Prison Initiative to launch the Bard Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library, bringing a tuition-free liberal arts college to a group of New Yorkers ages 19-66 ready for the challenge, but without the resume or resources of the typical student at an elite college.

When students finish their AA degrees, they’ll get support transferring into bachelor’s degree programs at leading colleges and universities, for which they will be well prepared.

When we invest deeply in the education of underestimated New Yorkers – in prisons and in communities – we create a generation of powerful leaders who represent the actual diversity of New York. That impact makes our city better. 

A proven pathway to higher education exists, and New York City is better for it. 

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City Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @JustinBrannan.

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Public Defenders are Exactly Who We Should Be Electing as District Attorneys


caban district attorney public defenders

(photo: @CabanForQueens)


Imagine this: you're a 50-year-old black man working as an assistant manager at a Gristedes in lower Manhattan, where you've worked for the past 25 years. It’s a typical evening: you close up the store and prepare for your long journey home to Harlem with a couple bags of groceries you bought for your family.

Once aboard an uncrowded A train, you set your groceries down next to you on one of many empty seats. At the 125th street stop, two uniformed NYPD officers board the train. They spot you, grab your groceries, dump them onto the floor, and place you in handcuffs. They proceed to take you to jail where you spend the night for the crime of "occupying multiple seats on a transit facility."

Many often characterize our criminal justice system as “broken.” The system is not broken — rather, it functions exactly as designed.

It is a well-oiled machine that fails to indict the likes of NYPD Officer Daniel Panteleo, who choked Eric Garner to death over cries of “I can’t breathe.” Yet it sends another man to prison for giving a single Xanax to an undercover officer who feigned withdrawal. These are not malfunctions or misfires, they are successes for a racist institution. Prosecuting, incarcerating, and disenfranchising people of color leads to perpetuating racial oppression, which is and always has been the purpose.

According to the NAACP, though African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the U.S. population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015. If African-Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

District Attorneys prosecute poor people of color for jumping a turnstile or walking through an exit gate, possessing a minor amount of marijuana, ‘obstructing’ a park bench, or occupying two seats on an empty subway car.

For the past decade as a public defender in Manhattan, I've seen firsthand the oppressive system at work. I’ve watched as police officers have justified under oath unconstitutional stops and arrests, viewed video recordings of coercive interrogations, and seen line-ups that were fraught with inherent racism. District Attorneys utilize coercive plea bargaining, withholding of evidence, and trial processes that favor disproportionate sentencing over fairness, rehabilitation, and respect for a person’s humanity.

The system subjugates and criminalizes the very existence of black and brown people, attacks the trans community, remains disproportionately lenient on those who abuse their power over citizens, and regularly disenfranchises society’s most vulnerable populations. "Broken" is a mischaracterization that ignores the deliberate mechanisms that create countless inequities.

Sweeping reform needs to occur to ensure that the system really works.

Manhattan—with all our privilege, status, and wealth—ought to set an unparalleled example and eliminate every type of discrimination in our criminal justice system. However, we have already fallen behind Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, and now Queens, with the likely election of Tiffany Cabán as the next District Attorney there. The grassroots forces that propelled Cabán to victory must come to Manhattan next.

The time for an equitable justice system in Manhattan is long overdue. Now is the moment for the borough to catch up and completely reimagine the justice system. To fight recidivism, crime, and assure real justice, we need to rebuild the system from the inside out.

A public defender, like Tiffany Cabán, is the only one in the courtroom who intimately grasps the trauma and indignities of what our system does to people of color and others who lack the means to hire private attorneys. Public defenders on the front lines have always known that our system is racist and classist. Presently we have two systems of justice, one for the wealthy, and one for the poor.

Right now, by electing public defenders as District Attorneys, we are finally seeing a movement to make sweeping changes, and we may have a chance to create a justice system that truly works.

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Eliza Orlins is a public defender in Manhattan. On Twitter @eorlins.

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At Stonewall 50, Ensuring Students Know the Real Story of Our City and See Themselves in Its History


harvey feinstein hosts

Council Member Daniel Dromm, the author (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


New York City is among the most diverse places in the country. It is home to more than 3 million foreign-born residents, 200 languages, 80 religious affiliations, and countless individuals who are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. Our city should celebrate the diversity that defines New York, including teaching young people about our extraordinarily rich history and culture.

Fortunately, there is already a model that can show us the way forward. Culturally responsive education (CRE) aligns educational curricula with students’ backgrounds and life experiences. The education with which we equip the next generation should enable our students to connect their classroom studies to their lived experiences. Moreover, it should instill confidence in our students of their own identities so that they may see how others like themselves have contributed to America’s history.

This Sunday, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ movement. Out of this movement emerged two prophetic voices: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Both of these transwomen of color were at the Stonewall Inn during the clashes with police and participated in numerous protest rallies and marches in the aftermath.

They were known for founding STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and supporting LGBTQ+ homeless individuals. The city will soon immortalize Johnson’s and Rivera’s places in history with a monument in Greenwich Village. However, too few New Yorkers, including students in our schools, know about these civil rights heroes and their work protecting and empowering the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our society.

CRE asks us to view the accolades of historical figures such as Harlem Renaissance performer Gladys Bentley and 1963 March on Washington architect Bayard Rustin in the context of their lives. They were queer people of color who overcame tremendous obstacles, long before Pride marches and Black Lives Matter. They are fascinating figures worthy of study precisely because of the multiple identities and the various environments they had to navigate.

Recognizing the complexity of such persons and promoting their stories allow the youth of New York City to find themselves in history. Amending school curricula and changing reading lists to reflect the contributions of a wide variety of Americans creates an environment that celebrates the richness of New York’s many communities. It also fosters a more welcoming classroom and an education that is personally relevant to our students.

In this way, CRE is truly student-centered learning. It keeps our students – particularly those who feel least included – engaged in and attuned to the accomplishments of those sidelined by the traditional narrative of American history and culture.

City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has agreed to accept the School Diversity Advisory Group recommendation to have CRE imbedded into all schools for all grades, welcome news indeed. I encourage the New York City Department of Education to implement it as soon as possible and ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity are fully integrated.

We deprive our students when we do not tell them the truth about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. All of our schools need to embrace CRE and prepare the next generation for a future where well-informed, critically-thinking citizens and residents will be even more desperately needed.

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Daniel Dromm is a former New York City public school teacher and represents the communities of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst in the City Council. On Twitter @Dromm25.

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The Williams Pipeline Came Back from the Dead - But the Shellfish Won’t


gov cuomo brieifing indian point

(photo: the governor's office)


Maybe you’ve heard: the Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement Pipeline, proposed to carry fracked gas through New York Harbor yet temporarily stopped by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation due to water-quality concerns, is already back from the dead. Because the needed permit was denied by the DEC “without prejudice,” Williams was allowed to reapply, and—putting quickness above caution—it already has.

About 99% of the new application is what you might expect: if we slow this and reduce that, Williams claims, all will turn out well for the clams and other species that live on the seafloor of New York Bay. Never mind that, if we were to do x as originally proposed, we’d fill the water with toxic mercury and copper; at x-1, all is fine.

These quibbles are maddening largely because the very idea of the project under discussion—a fracked gas pipeline that would lock us into fossil fuel usage for another 50 years—is, in the context of the climate crisis, already so patently absurd. Yet nothing in the new application is quite so absurd as one mitigation measure buried deep in the application’s third appendix.

Because Williams assumes “100% mortality” to all hard clams and other bottom-dwelling species along the 23-mile path of the pipeline, it has proposed what are essentially shellfish offsets: to make up for the deaths, they’ve offered to donate $3.4 million to the Long Island Shellfish Restoration Project, which would “support Governor Cuomo’s efforts to improve water quality...in Long Island, and effectively mitigate Project impacts on benthic habitat in New York waters.”

In case the DEC need be reminded, Williams has applied for a Water Quality Certificate intended to protect New York Bay and Raritan Bay, where the pipeline would be built. The waters that the Long Island Shellfish Restoration Project serve, however—Bellport Bay, Shinnecock Bay, and others—are 150 miles away out on Long Island, and with few outlets to the sea. Because of this, the water filtration and other benefits that additional shellfish would bring to those areas wouldn’t help New York Bay or Raritan Bay in the least. Offsets of this type would merely rob Peter to pay Paul.

The logic of Williams’ proposal is that of many market-based mitigation strategies: take something representing a scarcity (clams or carbon), turn it into a monetized abstraction divorced from place and circumstance and history, and use false equivalencies across vast geographical distances to justify continuing on with business as usual. Raise a claim here, kill a clam there—it all evens out in the end.

What gets lost in this scheme and all others like it is the fact that specific place and history matter: it is New York Bay that was once a dumping ground for 275 million gallons of industrial waste per day, New York Bay that has seen a miraculous recovery in water quality over the past 50 years, New York Bay where dolphin and whale sightings have recently skyrocketed, and New York Bay that needs to be protected vigilantly lest we see all of this progress completely vanish. Offsets would do nothing towards this end.

They also wouldn’t amount to any kind of sacrifice for Williams, which brought in $4.6 billion last year and stands to gain a 14% return on equity from this project. What would be sacrificed is the health of New York Bay, making Williams’ plan yet another example of a corporation using dollar signs to distract from the damage it would inflict on the public commons while privatizing all gains.  

The company’s rationale is clear enough: Williams is hoping that money might help make approving the pipeline a bit more palatable for the DEC, which is aware of the carnage at stake. In the new application, in order to come up with the mitigation figure of $3.4 million, Williams placed a value of $0.25 on each clam that would be affected by pipeline construction. Divide $.25 into $3.4 million and you get 13.6 million dead clams. That’s a lot for any environmental regulator’s conscience.

Governor Cuomo and the DEC must not fall for these corporate tricks. To do so would be to abdicate the responsibilities of the DEC under the Clean Water Act, which requires agencies to protect local aquatic species, not abstract, equate, and offset them. It would also be to endorse the idea that our ecosystems and aquatic commons are for sale as long as the offer is right.

Yet we cannot allow our ecological future to be bought. Governor Cuomo and the DEC must protect our harbor, not use it as a bargaining chip. The only way to do that is to stop the Williams Pipeline for good.

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Robert Wood is an organizer with the climate action group 350Brooklyn, which is part of the Stop the Williams Pipeline Coalition.

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A Big Mistake Atop the New York GOP


gop atop oped

Nick Langworthy, left, with Donald Trump (photo: @NickLangworthy)


Anointing Erie County Republican leader Nicholas J. Langworthy as State Party Chair is an embarrassment for the New York GOP.

Under his leadership, Erie Republicans have been shut out of nearly every elected office countywide. They’ve lost the county legislature, lost Assemblymember Ray Walter, and lest we forget Congressional Rep. Chris Collins is still walking that long Green Mile towards resignation and life as a future convicted felon.

Recall, it was Langworthy’s last-minute bush-league back-door skulduggery (infamous Nixon lawyer Don Segretti would’ve used a different term) that saddled New York’s GOP with crazed alt-right racist Carl Paladino atop the 2010 statewide ticket, dooming down-ballot candidates in close races like former State Comptroller candidate Harry Wilson and former Attorney General candidate Dan Donovan.

Now, Langworthy’s slated to take over the State Party in July, and all he knows how to do is lose.

In his announcement speech on April 28, Langworthy pledged to “rebuild, retool, and revitalize” the Republican brand south of Poughkeepsie, but I doubt he has any real interest in or even comprehends the scope of the problem currently facing the Empire State GOP.

In the last election, Republican candidates running atop the party ticket scored 15% in New York City, 30% in Westchester, and 41% in Nassau – seven downstate counties that account for 51% of the statewide vote. Which means, Mr. Langworthy, if you’re going to “rebuild” then you’ve got to “retool” to win urban Democrats, a lot of urban Democrats, in an emotionally raw, hyper-partisan political environment.

Suburban women are abandoning the party in droves. Exit data from 2018 spells out pretty clearly you’re not going to win them back by preaching the gospel according to Donald. Meanwhile, according to Siena’s latest statewide study, more than 60% of New Yorkers across every demographic and in all three regions said under no circumstances would they vote to re-elect the president.

Which means you can kiss any halfhearted “revitalize” effort goodbye.

Outgoing State Party Chair Ed Cox came in after the Obama wave of 2008 decimated state and local parties. But after four years he took us from two members of Congress to nine, won both Westchester and Nassau County Executive races, won a State Senate majority, and bolstered party fundraising to the point where this past cycle, the State GOP reported raising a record total of $12 million.

And he didn’t have to kiss white supremacist backsides in order to do it either.

By transferring the party’s political power structure away from the financial focal point, and installing an ersatz executor with little knowledge or experience of what it takes to campaign in the five boroughs, the GOP is firing a shot into both its feet, setting itself alight, and crying out, “This is fine.”

Expect high-dollar donors to close their wallets, expect top-tier candidates below the Tappan Zee to take a pass on running, expect very little buy-in from many urban and suburban communities that the Republican Party under Donald Trump has its best interests at heart.

In a recent City Journal article, longtime political observer Bob McManus wrote that the New York State GOP has “nothing left to lose.” Au contraire, Bob. There’s still lots left to lose – local electeds downstate, county officers in the Hudson Valley, and what few remaining legislative incumbents we still have. However, Nick Langworthy is the wrong man at the wrong time to try to preserve it, never mind rehabilitating the party in time to recapture the State Senate ahead of redistricting, or breaking the long-standing statewide drought in 2022.

Republicans don’t need a State Party chair who triples down on a losing horse, is devoid of integrity, who lacks wisdom, and whose vision for the future aligns with alt-right extremists like Steve Bannon, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Gavin McInnes.

No wonder traditional pro-business groups like the New York State Business Council and local Chambers of Commerce have been distancing themselves from the GOP in recent weeks and months. Trickle down Trumpism.

At the end of the day, we get the world we deserve, but if this is the future the party wants, then…dracarys.

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John William Schiffbauer is a political consultant and was Deputy Communications Director for the New York Republican State Committee from 2014-16. On Twitter @JWSGOP.

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Governor Gets What He Wants at the MTA; Now It's Time to Deliver


oped gov cuomo

Gov. Cuomo on the subway (photo: the governor's office)


At the end of the state legislative session that just finished several steps were taken to consolidate Governor Cuomo’s power over the MTA. First, he swapped out two of his ‘independent’ appointees to the MTA Board for two members of his state cabinet, Robert Mujica, his budget director, and Linda Lacewell, commissioner of the Department of Financial Services.

Second, in order to legitimize the board appointment of someone who is not a resident of the MTA region, the law was changed to provide that the state budget director, regardless of residence, may serve on the board ex-officio.

Finally, a new law was passed requiring the appointment within six weeks of a “transformation director” to report directly to the MTA Board to implement the reorganization plan that was required by the budget bills passed in early April and is expected to be prepared and submitted by June 30.

These actions have been criticized by respected transit analysts, (see here and here), largely on the grounds that the governor is creating conflicts of interest by placing his own full-time employees on a board that is supposed to be independent and that he is undermining the governance of the MTA by creating new positions outside the existing chain of command.

These are valid concerns; however, for those who have bemoaned Governor Cuomo’s past ambivalence about his responsibility for the transit system, the actions have a significant upside: they establish clearly and beyond any doubt that the Governor of the State is the ultimate authority and decision-maker with regard to the MTA. And this governor has now taken ownership of it in a clear and unequivocal way.

I know Rob Mujica; he is one of the most competent people I have worked with in government. I have no reason to think that Linda Lacewell is any less capable.

They both bring a great deal of management experience and knowledge of public finance to their new roles as MTA board members. Yes, they will have to navigate their loyalty to Governor Cuomo and their fiduciary duty to the MTA; there may be issues on which one or both of them will need to recuse themselves. But for the most part, their other roles should complement and enhance their value as board members.

In fact, it may be a good idea to designate the state budget director as an ex-officio member of the MTA Board – and the city budget director as well, for that matter. Both governments have significant control over resources that are and/or should be devoted to the MTA, particularly with regard to its capital spending.

On the other hand, it is certainly unusual and probably not optimal to specify that a particular staff line at the MTA, i.e. a new Transformation Director, report directly to the Board and not to the CEO.
Consolidation of services has long been a favorite topic of Governor Cuomo and it makes sense that redundant departments among MTA divisions (NYCT, LIRR, MetroNorth, and TBTA) be combined. But reorganization of those agencies will not fundamentally change the MTA’s financial picture; more concerning than the new hire is raising unrealistic expectations about what “transformation” will accomplish.

In any event, Governor Cuomo, with the assistance of the state Legislature, has solidified his control, and it is long past time for him to move on from bashing the organization to creating and supporting useful change. He should take responsibility for:

1. Release of a new 20-year needs assessment that shows the full cost of getting every single piece of MTA infrastructure to a state of good repair. The last assessment was issued in 2013 and another is required by law in 2020. We cannot pay for everything at once, and there may be some items on the wish list we can never pursue, but we must see what all the needs are so that the public can provide input and the MTA Board can decide what needs to be prioritized.

2. Release of a five-year capital plan. The current plan covers 2014-19 and another is expected by October, for 2020-2024. Estimates of the cost of a complete plan for the MTA’s next five years range from $40-60 billion. Let’s see what the authority has decided to prioritize and how it is going to be paid for. Of course, money should not be wasted; but don’t skimp on this, the most important infrastructure in the state. In the past, the governor and his representatives have pressured the MTA to reduce its “bloated” capital plan, only to later agree to increases because of the urgency of the needs. Will Mujica and Lacewell support the full amount the MTA needs or try to protect the Governor from having to come up with more revenue by arguing for less?

3. Making it clear that the commitment to contribute $8 billion in state dollars to the current five-year capital plan will be honored, and specify what projects it will fund. All the projects in the current plan have not been completed; large projects are almost never fully achieved within a single five-year capital plan because construction commitments take time. But this money should not be allowed to disappear or be rolled over to fund the next five-year plan.

4. Focusing most of the money, time, and attention on getting the current transit system to operate effectively and safely, not on shiny new projects that lend themselves to ribbon cuttings but don’t improve travel times and experiences for most commuters.

5. Negotiating tough new contracts with the TWU and other unions that do not add any costs for the MTA and its riders. Curbing overtime abuse is of course important (another hands-on tactic of the governor was to hand-pick a new MTA Inspector General) but it is labor costs that are the primary driver of MTA spending, accounting for 60% of the MTA’s annual operating budget. The next round of contracts MUST contain work-rule changes that make workers more productive and contribute to cost savings, not increases. (Bob Linn is an excellent new appointment to the MTA Board who should be able to assist in this effort.)

OK, Governor Cuomo, you have been given everything you wanted in terms of control, more than many think is appropriate. Use your power wisely and effectively because there is no longer any question the subway buck stops with you.

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

 

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Public Defenders as Prosecutors: Unanswered Questions


governorcuomo chief judge difiore remarks

(photo: the governor's office)


The recognition that prosecutors were a primary cause of mass incarceration has spawned a movement for progressive prosecutors. While exactly what it means to be a progressive prosecutor is far from clear, at a minimum it reflects a change in the way prosecutors approached their work over the past several decades.

Common features of a progressive prosecutor include emphasizing diversion over prosecution for minor crimes; declining to prosecute marijuana arrests in certain circumstances; and reducing or eliminating calls for money bail. While to many these adjustments seem more like correctives than anything particularly progressive, they do signal important changes to the prosecutorial status quo.

As surprising as it is to witness the number of District Attorney candidates running as criminal justice reformers, it is even more remarkable that many of these candidates are current or former Public Defenders campaigning to be the prosecutor in the very court in which they have been defending their clients. To devotees of the progressive prosecutor movement, this development is like manna from heaven; every Public Defender is seen as uniquely qualified by virtue of having been a Public Defender. 

In the years since the Supreme Court ruled that anyone facing incarceration is entitled to an attorney, there have been countless reports about the crisis in indigent defense and the effectiveness of government appointed lawyers. Often, the crisis centers around resources; Public Defenders have too many clients and too little funding. Yet there is also the reality that not all Public Defenders are vigorous, dedicated and indefatigably zealous advocates for their clients. 

Before anointing any Public Defenders as righteous District Attorneys, it is imperative to discern what kind of Public Defender they were. Did they pound the pavement looking for witnesses? Did they spend hours researching the law and writing novel arguments to expand the law and protect their clients’ rights? Did they visit their clients whether in jail, prison, or at home? Did they regularly push back against prosecutors and fight in court with judges who ran roughshod over their clients? 

The paradox is that most, if not all, of the fierce and tireless Public Defenders who meet the “test” spelled out above are the very ones who likely could not imagine prosecuting their clients in any way shape or form. And after all the cases are diverted from court, and all the low-level offenses are dismissed, that is what Public Defenders turned District Attorneys will do -- prosecute their former clients. That prosecution will be kinder, gentler, and more attuned to race and poverty, but thousands and thousands of people will still be prosecuted, and many of them will end up enduring the brutality, despair, and violence of years lived in prison cells. 

The progressive prosecutor won’t ask for money bail very often, or maybe not at all, but will ask that any number of people be held without bail or subject to all kinds of surveillance and restraints on their liberty.

The progressive prosecutor won’t seek incarceration except as necessary, or even only as a last resort, but will find that last resort with respect to thousands of people.

The progressive prosecutor won’t ask for the maximum sentence all the time, and maybe only in some cases, but will still often ask for jail or prison sentences.

These truths make most committed Public Defenders shudder at the thought of being the elected prosecutor and having people incarcerated, even for a day, in their name.

Public Defenders daily witness all manner of damage, indignity and violence inflicted on clients, their families, and their communities. They argue every day that the criminal legal system is unjust from biased and unconstitutional stops, arrests, interrogations. and line-ups, to rubber stamp Grand Juries, and through plea bargaining and trial processes that promote efficiency and punishment over fairness and decency.

They are called to stand, literally and figuratively, between the awesome power of the government and their clients. Public Defenders as prosecutors will now face their former clients, level accusations against them, and frequently argue against the assertion, let alone expansion, of their constitutional rights. Suddenly, warrants are not always required, the Grand Jury isn’t so bad, and police interrogations are a valuable societal tool.

When I was a fledgling Public Defender, I was assigned to assist a supervisor representing a man charged with a particularly brutal crime. Several lawyers from the assigned counsel panel had already declined to take the case, the prosecutor was seeking a maximum sentence, the judge didn’t even try to hide his contempt for our client, and the media coverage was dehumanizing.

In his audiotaped confession, our client recounted in graphic detail what he did and why he did it. I asked my supervisor how he felt about representing this client. He responded by saying that it was exactly clients like this, who just about everyone wants to throw away, that most desperately needed a committed Public Defender.

Ironically, this is the very man the progressive prosecutor will prosecute, albeit with greater awareness and sensitivity. His case will not be dismissed or diverted out of court. He will not be released without bail. And the progressive prosecutor will seek a prison sentence. 

Accepting for now the current system, the question is not so much whether that man should be prosecuted but who should, or could, do the prosecuting. A consummate Public Defender couldn’t be the person standing in court saying that this person, this man standing five feet from me, must, in my name and my role as prosecutor, go to state prison. Maybe the Public Defender who could do that made the right move in becoming a prosecutor. Maybe they didn’t have the right stuff to be a Public Defender in the first place.

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Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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Banning Fur is Not an Issue of Race


furban race

(photo: @theanimalvoters)


The world around us is changing. People are making more ethical choices concerning the environment and the welfare of other species. We’re starting to use less plastic because of the impact it has on our oceans and ocean life. More and more people are choosing vegan milks and meats as they come to understand the ill effects that factory farming has on the planet.

A ban on fur in New York City would be a step in the same ethical direction.

New York has long been considered a fashion Mecca. We have always set the pace for others to follow, but on the issue of fur, we’re falling behind while everyone else is moving ahead.

Fur farms all over the world are already closing. Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and West Hollywood have already banned sales of new fur items. Famous designers including Prada, Versace, Michael Kors, Armani, Gucci, and so many others are saying “no” to fur. New York is behind the curve. In 2019, wearing the skin of other sentient beings is simply unacceptable.

Two years ago, my daughter asked me for a Canada Goose coat. I told her, “Taj, you know I’d do anything for you, but you’re not getting that coat. You have a choice. Animals don’t.” I explained to her how coyotes are caught in steel traps and left in pain, struggling and crying, until a trapper finally arrives to shoot them or beat them to death—just so their fur can be used for the trim on a jacket hood. After I explained this to her, she didn’t want the coat anymore, and she asked me, “Daddy, why don’t they just use fake fur?”

That’s a question I want everyone reading this to think about. Why are we not using faux fur, especially when sustainable, vegan materials, such as faux fur made from hemp or recycled plastic bottles, are kinder to animals and the environment? Why are we putting profit over ethics?

Animals are not “things” to be used for our own ends any more than people of color are “things” to be used by whites.

I say this as a descendant of African slaves, who were brought to this country and used as a commodity. It disturbs me greatly to see other fellow sentient beings have their freedom and lives taken from them and be used as commodities for human gain.

Why would a people with a history of violated human rights approve of the unfair treatment of others? We should be speaking up for the most vulnerable among us.

To those in the African-American community who say that a fur ban is “racist” and a form of discrimination, please remember that you are not the victim. The victims are the millions of animals killed every year for what is rightfully theirs—their very skin and fur.

And to those in the African-American community who believe that a fur ban is an attack on our culture, you’re disregarding our own history of oppression. If you speak of freedom, but it’s only in regard to others who happen to look like you, is it really freedom? Shouldn’t we want freedom for all sentient life?

Banning fur is not an issue of race. It is an issue of rights. As humans, our morals can be judged by how we treat those who are the most vulnerable. That’s why I encourage everyone in the city to stand on the right side of justice and support the proposed fur ban. Oppression is oppression regardless of who it is happening to, and when we have the opportunity to end one form of injustice, we must seize it.

***
Stewart Mitchell is a leader in the animal rights movement in Brooklyn, author, and father.

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Lives on the Line: Legislature Must Reform Solitary Confinement Before Session's End


Cuomo solitary confinement prison

(photo: Governor's Office)


Thousands of people are subjected to long-term solitary confinement in New York. The United Nations calls it torture. New York’s jails and prisons call it business as usual.

Our state’s laws permit 23-hour confinement for months and even years at a time in jails and prisons across the state. This despite the fact that long-term solitary confinement creates severe and irreparable mental and physical trauma. Its effects can be deadly. The death this month of Layleen Polanco in a solitary cell at Rikers is just the latest example.

In 2015, the state and the New York Civil Liberties Union reached a settlement that required critical changes to the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. Although the state has made important efforts to reform solitary confinement for people in prisons, we need the legislature to pass more comprehensive changes to ensure that individuals held in both prisons and jails are no longer subjected to solitary confinement in state prisons and local jails that lasts longer than 15 consecutive days.

People in solitary confinement are seven times more likely to hurt or kill themselves. We cannot afford to wait on reform. Thousands of people are in danger and there is a bill in the state legislature that could help them.  

The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act would make several important changes to the way our state currently uses solitary. First, it would prohibit long-term solitary confinement by limiting the time spent in confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days or 20 days total in any 60-day period.

The HALT Act would ban the solitary confinement of especially vulnerable people, including those 21 years or younger, 55 years or older, and people with certain disabilities. The government would also be barred from locking up in solitary anyone who is pregnant or in post-partum recovery or anyone who is a new mother or caring for a child while incarcerated.

Critically, the legislation would prohibit solitary for all but a small set of serious offenses. And HALT would provide rehabilitative programming that would help keep jails and prisons safer for everyone, including staff. To that end, it mandates that all people in solitary receive at least six hours of out-of-cell rehabilitative programming, plus one hour of out-of-cell recreation per day.

In settling the NYCLU’s lawsuit, Governor Cuomo has acknowledged that the state needs to reduce its reliance on solitary confinement. The settlement was critical to reducing the state’s reliance on isolated confinement. But we need his leadership to push for more comprehensive reform that protects the health of everyone in our jails and prisons by ending prolonged solitary confinement.

No one should be subject to torture.

Speaker Carl Heastie and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins must act now and bring HALT to a vote. In 2018, New Yorkers voted to end the gridlock in Albany that kept progressive legislation like HALT from passing. By voting for this bill, lawmakers will help show that this legislative session is different and that the status quo of Albany inaction is over.

***
Donna Lieberman is the Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. On Twitter @JustAskDonna & @NYCLU.

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Our Judicial Elections are Broken, But They’re No Joke


may bdb 28 judges civil

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


On June 25, Brooklyn Democrats will hold a primary to select the Democratic candidates for judges of the Civil Court and judge of the Surrogate Court.

New York has a convoluted system for selecting judges. Some are appointed by the Governor. Criminal and Family Court judges in New York City are appointed by the Mayor. Candidates for Supreme Court are nominated at a judicial nominating convention, while candidates for Civil Court and Surrogate Court are elected through a traditional primary election.

Further complicating matters, candidates for Surrogate Court run county-wide as do some candidates for Civil Court. However, some candidates for Civil Court are elected by a subset of voters in what is called a “municipal district.”

This is a dysfunctional system. There is no justification for some judges to be appointed and some elected. There is no justification for some candidates to be nominated at a judicial convention and others to run in a primary. There is no justification for some judges to run county-wide and others to get elected by a subset of voters.

This convoluted system undermines the goal of a merit-based selection of judges, is almost entirely dominated by Democratic Party leaders, and lacks controls to prevent an unqualified candidate from becoming a judge. 

Take, for example, this year’s primary for judge of the Surrogate Court. Judge Margarita Lopez Torres is running for reelection. She is an excellent judge who famously refused to give a patronage job at the direction of the then-Brooklyn Democratic Party boss, Clarence Norman, who would go on to serve a prison sentence for corruption.

As a result of her “defiance,” party leaders, who controlled the judicial nominating convention, blocked her from seeking election to the New York Supreme Court. She became the plaintiff in a lawsuit claiming the way New York elects Supreme Court judges was unconstitutional, which would eventually lose at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her 14-year term now up, she faces a bitter primary from two opponents in her bid for reelection. Meredith Jones, while found qualified to be a judge of the Surrogate Court, is running at the behest of allies of the disgraced party boss whom Judge Lopez Torres spurned close to two decades ago and who are using the primary to seek retribution. The other primary opponent, Judge Elena Baron, is a sitting Civil Court judge elected only two years ago. After declining to appear before the New York City Bar Association for what she said are ethical concerns with the panel because the attorneys appear before judges that they rate, she was deemed "not approved." Her campaign is being run by a notorious political consultant who uses judicial elections as an opportunity to make money while “sticking it to the machine.” (I have endorsed Judge Lopez Torres in my capacity as an elected District Leader for Brooklyn's 44th Assembly District.*)

There are only two Surrogate Court judges in Brooklyn. They will decide thousands of sensitive cases dealing with complicated end-of-life issues. If Judge Baron were elected, 50% of cases would be heard a judge who should not be presiding over them. This does not “stick it to the machine.” It sticks it to the grieving Brooklynites going through the Surrogate Court to carry out the last wishes of their departed loved ones.

Likewise, the primary for Civil Court judge from the 6th Municipal District (where I live) features a candidate, Tehilah Berman, found not approved by both the Brooklyn Democratic Party screening panel and the New York City Bar Association.

Our legal system depends upon public confidence in the quality and integrity of the judges hearing our cases. Judge Berman's election to the Civil Court would be a mistake given her lack of relevant experience, including next to no litigation experience. When I recently confronted her about her lack of qualifications, her campaign manager sent me a message on Facebook threatening, “next time you will deal with me or one of my team members.”

It is time for New York to abolish judicial elections altogether in favor of a unitary merit-based appointive system. While appointment of judges is not without the potential for political influence, it would exponentially reduce the vice grip that the Democratic Party machine has on election of judges to the Supreme Court and significantly reduce the likelihood of an unqualified candidate becoming a judge of any court.

Likewise, there are highly-qualified attorneys who don’t seek judgeships because they refuse to play in the swamp of the current system, but would absolutely seek appointment in a merit-based system.

Finally, mechanisms can be implemented to reduce the influence of politics in the selection of judges. For example, under the current mayor, there is an open application process and the office responsible for political appointments plays no role in the evaluation and recommendation of applicants. 

That said, the primary election is next week away and we have to vote in the system we currently have.

So, I ask all Brooklynites, before you vote, please do your research. Information about judicial candidates is often scant. But this year, many of the judges have Facebook pages and campaign websites. Visit them. New Kings Democrats have put out an excellent, much welcome and needed judicial election guide. Read it.

When unqualified judges get elected, two people win -- the unqualified judge and their campaign consultant. Hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites lose. These are real people, with real legal problems, who deserve to have their cases decided by real judges.

***
Doug Schneider is the Democratic District Leader for the 44th Assembly District covering parts of Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Boro Park, Midwood, and Ditmas. *He has endorsed candidates in three judicial races, two mentioned above (Judge Lopez Torres and Caroline Cohen for Civil Court from the 6th Judicial District, as well as D. Bernadette Neckles for Civil Court countywide). Although unofficial, for Supreme Court he has one of 42 votes in nominating Democratic candidates, a power he is advocating to end. On Twitter @DougSchneiderBK.

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Note: this article has been corrected to remove characterization of Baron's recommendation from the NYC Bar Association as "unqualified." The recommendation was "not approved."

Smells Like Teen Surveillance


gov cuomo 2million

(photo: Philip Kamrass/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


Picture a student sprinting to math class, late for a test after sleeping through the alarm.  Hair disheveled, backpack open, their heart is racing. But in an instant this quintessential scene morphs into something far more dangerous as the student is faced with armed police officers, aiming their guns, demanding the student lie down on the ground.

This is the grim prospect for the students of Lockport, New York, whose school district is the latest to stumble headlong into the national surveillance debate.

In Lockport, students will no longer just be graded on their homework and exams, they’ll receive a grade from the school’s state-of-the-art surveillance boondoggle: facial recognition. Let’s be clear, facial recognition technology has no place in schools. It is expensive, invasive, and more than a little bit creepy. The newest versions claim they predict behavior, but that “suspected school shooter” is actually just an anxious kid who’s running late for a test.

Even worse, many facial recognition systems will label students as a “threat” because of their race.

The facts are clear: facial recognition is biased. The technology can be eerily accurate, but error rates are much higher for women and people of color. When one commercial product looked at members of Congress, it largely gave white representatives a pass, but falsely claimed that half a dozen of members of the Congressional Black Caucus were criminals.

Bias would be reason enough to scrap this Orwellian misadventure, but things get worse. Facial recognition fails more often for minors and people under stress. That’s right, they’re putting a racist surveillance technology that’s undermined by moody teenagers…in a high school.

And the problems don’t end there. Not only is facial recognition biased and broken, it is expensive. Lockport doled out nearly $4 million for their eight-school system. Millions that could support students, being used to surveil them instead. But the cost is more than dollars and cents; this system comes at a steep cost to student privacy. The system captures the biometric data of every person setting foot in the school, building a database that could be harnessed by law enforcement or even ICE.

Alarmingly, Lockport’s impact could extend far beyond the eight-square-mile town. Cities and states look to each other for policy innovation, copying each other on things related to “security” all the time. So long as state and federal officials allow money to be squandered this way, there will be a financial incentive for other school districts to follow Lockport’s dubious lead.

State officials must do more. In recent days, Governor Cuomo belatedly noted his “concerns” about this discriminatory surveillance net, but his comments are too little, too late. The half-hearted condemnation is particularly unconvincing in light of his past facial recognition advocacy.

Just last year, the governor rushed the roll-out of a disastrous facial recognition project on the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge that failed to detect a single face. It’s time for the governor to face the music on surveillance and call for a state-wide moratorium on facial recognition.

As a first step, we must prohibit facial recognition in schools -- it’s the very least we can do. That’s exactly what lawmakers might do in a few days when they should vote on a measure from Assemblymember Monica Wallace and State Senator Brian Kavanagh, banning biometric data collection in schools. The measure might be too late to help the students whose data was already recorded in Lockport, but we can make sure no other students have to give up their privacy and civil rights as the price of attending classes.

***
Cahn is the executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York-based civil rights and police accountability organization. On Twitter @cahnlawny. Blum is a rising 3L at NYU School of Law and a civil rights intern at The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. On Twitter @JamesLBlum.

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