It may come as a shock to some that New York — in many ways one of the most progressive states in the country — is extremely regressive when it comes to criminal justice.
But this year, for the just the third time in 50 years, Democrats are the majority in the New York State Senate. The legislature has a unique opportunity to advance real criminal justice reform.
Sadly, recent signs of stalled efforts and excuses point to Democrats losing this once-in-a-generation shot at improving our criminal justice system. New Yorkers can’t wait any longer; criminal justice reform must happen now. Our legislators need to take action.
In order to improve New York’s criminal justice record, we must embrace four major reforms: bail reform, discovery reform, expungement, and ending solitary confinement.
Our state relies on a system of cash bail that is inherently unjust and wreaks havoc on Black and brown communities by forcing individuals who have not been convicted to stay in jail because they can’t front the cash.
We must eliminate cash bail. Just as critical as eliminating cash bail is ensuring it isn’t replaced by a system that would hold even more people in jail pre-trial. We support The Bail Elimination Act, which ends cash bail and creates provisions for pretrial detention.
We must reform the discovery process by compelling prosecutors to give defense attorneys the information they need with time to mount a solid defense of their client. The Discovery for Justice Reform Act would roll back New York’s outdated “Blindfold Law” and allow defendants to have all relevant information before accepting or declining a plea deal, which currently is not available.
We must legalize marijuana as Governor Cuomo has promised, but we can’t stop there. Legalization must be coupled with records expungement for marijuana offenses, and must address the collateral consequences that stem from marijuana criminalization, such as immigration, housing, child welfare and employment denial.
And finally, we must end the horrific practice of solitary confinement in New York prisons and jails. Our lawmakers have the power to pursue more humane, effective alternatives by passing Senate Bill 1623.
If these pieces are included in the governor’s budget, we are looking towards our legislators to hold the governor accountable for enacting true, lasting reform.
We must not squander this opportunity for reform that brings Black New Yorkers and communities of color closer to real justice. After all, it is communities of color that are most affected by our unjust criminal justice system. These are urgent needs that must be accomplished this legislative session.
Legislators in New York have an historic opportunity to lead New York toward progress.
To these lawmakers we say these words: hold the line for justice. Most have, but we still need support from State Senators Monica Martinez, Kevin Thomas and Anna Kaplan.
Black people and all communities of color have been waiting for meaningful criminal justice reforms for decades. We can’t wait any longer.
We look forward to celebrating the fruits of our labor – progress toward true freedom and justice for all – together.
Scott Roberts is the senior campaign director for Criminal Justice at Color Of Change, a leading online racial justice organization.