Criminal Justice Reform

Although New York has finally “raised the age,” there are still a myriad of criminal justice problems in New York:

  • Cash is still used for bail at the judge’s discretion on a wide varied of cases, from misdemeanors to felonies, penalizing the poor and working class and forcing people charged with nonviolent crimes to needlessly spend time in the state’s increasingly expensive jails.
  • New York still sends thousands of its citizens into prison every year for drug possession instead of making them patients in drug treatment centers. Incarceration is much more expensive than drug treatment, and the lack of treatment increases recidivism.
  • Although our jails and prisons feature many people with mental illnesses, there are not nearly enough programs to treat their needs, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.
  • Legalization of marijuana would save New York hundreds of millions of dollars a year in enforcement, and in addition, avoid doing real harm to the lives of thousands of New Yorkers by defining them for life as “criminals” in the process.
  • In Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York (2014), the Appellate Court determined that five upstate counties and the State had not always provided “effective counsel” as mandated in the Federal Constitution for criminal cases. The legislature decided to remedy this issue in Senate Bill 8114 by having the state government reimburse the counties for the cost of indigent legal aid, but the Governor vetoed the bill.
  • There is no requirement for effective counsel in major civil cases such as child custody cases, tenant evictions and home foreclosures. People who can afford representation have an enormous and unfair advantage over people who can’t.  This kind of disparity happens every day in New York Civil Court, decisions that impact people for a lifetime.
  • New York State still sends people to prison who committed non-violent misdemeanors who would be better and more efficiently treated outside of prison.
  • Many prisoners who leave prison frequently don’t have individualized re-entry plans to help them access resources for housing, job training, drug treatment and the like. The lack of support people get when they re-enter society has a huge impact on their likelihood for recidivism.
  • When a civilian is killed by the police, there is currently an executive order from Governor Cuomo enabling the Attorney General to act as special prosecutor. This order can be reversed at any time, and the Attorney General is a political position, who may be influenced by special interests or public opinion.
  • New York is one of only 10 states that has a “Blindfold Law,” which enables prosecutors to wait until just before the trial starts to share their evidence with the defense — putting the defense at a terrible and unfair disadvantage.

SOLUTION

A constitutional amendment must be passed with the following features:

  • As State Senator Michael Gianaris has proposed, replace the cash bail system with a more equitable, flexible, and cheaper structure.
  • People who are in prison for drug possession must have access to drug rehabilitation programs.
  • People who are in prison and have a mental illness must have access to treatment.
  • Marijuana use must be legalized.
  • Legal Aid must be fully funded to provide effective counsel for criminal cases.
  • Effective counsel must also be required for major civil cases such as child custody, orders of protection, and home foreclosures.
  • People who commit non-violent misdemeanors should be given alternatives to prison, such as home confinement, drug court, even a stay at a halfway house.
  • All people who spend time in prison should have individualized re-entry programs to help them successfully re-enter society.
  • Require a Special Prosecutor for any killing by the police.
  • Prosecutors must automatically turn over to the defense police reports, witness statements, grand jury testimony, and so on, immediately and automatically, rather than just before the trial starts.

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