By Rick Jones, Executive Director, Neighborhood Defender Service
New York’s new state budget promises to bring a suite of long-overdue changes to our criminal legal system. The agreement announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday substantially reforms our bail system and takes steps to protect our clients’ constitutional right to a fair, speedy trial.
As Executive Director of Neighborhood Defender Service, I have seen first-hand the devastating consequences of our unequal legal system and want to thank the activists, defenders and elected officials who have made possible the important changes included in this budget. Their work will have a tangible impact on the lives of New Yorkers, preventing thousands of days of unjust detention through cash bail reform. They have also ensured that those accused of crimes have the opportunity to know the facts of their case before a trial begins. Fixing our discovery laws, as this agreement does, can help level the playing field in the courtroom and mitigate the unevenly bargained plea deals and wrongful convictions our communities continue to endure.
In acknowledging these achievements, I also want to make sure we do not mistake progress for true justice. On that front, we have a long way to go.
Since we opened our doors in Harlem in 1990, NDS has fought the pernicious impact of New York’s cash bail policies. Thousands of people have been unnecessarily shunted into jails before they were convicted of anything, simply because they could not pay bail. This has enormous consequences on their lives, families and communities.
This budget will end that policy – for some. While I am pleased that thousands of people accused of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies will no longer be held indefinitely based on their access to assets, we have a moral responsibility to end cash bail for everyone, full stop. Until that happens, New York will retain a tiered criminal legal system, with the rich enjoying their full panoply of rights while the poor are unjustly pent up in prisons. That the budget does not achieve this is a major failing.
We call on elected officials to honor their commitment to end cash bail altogether.
We also call on officials to fulfill their pledge to meaningfully address other policies that disproportionately affect the poor and communities of color, including the legalization of marijuana. We are disappointed that legalization was not included as part of the budget, even though Governor Cuomo declared it among his top priorities. The unequal policing and prosecution of drug crimes is abhorrent, and legalizing marijuana is a step in the right direction.
Legalization must also work to correct historical wrongs, first by clearing the records of those with convictions related to marijuana possession or use as a necessary component of legalization. It must then ensure that the tax revenue generated by legalizing marijuana benefit communities targeted by the war on drugs. Further, as legalization creates new businesses and substantial profits, those communities most targeted by our criminal legal system for its use must derive proportional benefit from these newly-legitimate markets.
The budget agreement does some important work to address the collateral damages our clients endure from criminal legal system entanglement. This includes changing misdemeanor sentences to ensure they do not trigger automatic consequences. It also enshrines some housing and employment protections. These are steps in the right direction, to be sure, but they do not go far enough. We must further enshrine education, employment and family cohesion for those most impacted by the criminal legal system, both to ease their re-entry and to prevent legal intervention in the first place.
For nearly 30 years, NDS has fought for justice alongside our clients, and pointed to the gaping holes in our system. This agreement is among the most meaningful moves to plug them in decades, and we applaud all who helped make it happen. We call on them to continue this struggle and secure a still more robust version of justice.