New York Democrats won big. Will they deliver big change?

Vaidya Gullapalli

On election night, New York became the site of a decisive Democratic win. The party now controls the state Senate by a large margin and for the first time in a decade, state government will be entirely under Democratic control. Despite being a famously blue state, this is actually an unusual moment in New York, where Democrats have held the governorship and had full control of the legislature at the same time for only a total of three years since World War II. Now they have the power to deliver on a host of progressive reforms, including criminal justice reforms, that are achievable at the state level. The question is whether they will.

Plenty of people are pushing them to. In the two weeks since the election, groups have begun calling for legislative reforms that will reverse the tough-on-crime policies that created a bloated and inhumane criminal legal system and have fed a terrifying federal deportation machinery. The list is long, a reflection of the many years of Republican control in the Senate when little far-reaching legislation was possible. And the efforts predate this election. Advocates and legislators worked to pass a series of bills in the Democrat-controlled State Assembly in the spring, laying the groundwork for legislation that could be passed by both houses and signed by the governor in the event of favorable election results.

Last week, the heads of New York City’s five largest public defender offices laid out their proposals for change in a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the likely Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Also last week, criminal justice activists rallied across the state calling for “real change” that would, as Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance said, “disrupt the status quo.”

The areas of reform encompass the front end to the back end and everything in between. On the front end, advocates are calling for measures to address police accountability; bail, speedy trial, and discovery reforms; and marijuana legalization. For years, NYPD officers have been shielded by Section 50-a of the State Civil Rights Law that the city and the police department argued prevented the release of disciplinary records. In a decision last spring that endorsed the city’s interpretation of 50-a, a Manhattan judge wrote that the remedy would have to “come from the legislature.” The provision attracted widespread scrutiny after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo and the city’s argument that it could not release Pantaleo’s disciplinary records because of the statute.

Advocates are also calling for of a ban on long-term solitary confinement (which passed the Assembly in the spring), expanded visits for people in prison, and a restoration of the free bus service for those visiting people in prison. As the costs of incarcerating older adults in New York continue to climb, there is a proposal to introduce the opportunity for parole release for those age 55 or over who have already served a decade and a half in prison.

And, as the Trump administration experiments with an array of exclusionary policies targeting immigrants, advocates in New York are calling for protections that would include reducing the maximum sentences for misdemeanor convictions by one day to prevent exposure to deportation. As ICE has made a practice of sending agents to courthouses to arrest people appearing as defendants, victims, plaintiffs, or witnesses in cases, one proposed solution is a requirement of a judicial warrant for any courthouse arrests carried out by ICE.

The reality is that New York, rather than being a liberal beacon, has hung on to policies that have been revised and reversed in other parts of the country, including more conservative states. New York’s speedy-trial law offers little relief or protection to defendants incarcerated pretrial, as seen in the case of Kalief Browder. Thirty-five states have open discovery laws but New York’s law allows prosecutors to wait until the eve of trial to disclose crucial evidence, including police reports, witness statements, and the results of scientific testing. New York places people in solitary confinement at a rate that exceeds the national average. The letter from the public defenders references the many lost opportunities over the years: “Impacted communities and the greater public—your constituents—recognize the profound injustices that Albany has permitted to exist for decades, while other states have taken action to help fix the problems.”

Now, at a time when Republicans can’t seem to get out of their own way to enact even modest reforms at the federal level, Democrats in New York, after so long, have been given the power to enact laws that could make the state a progressive model. The organizers and advocates, who fought to get to this moment, will be watching. As Frederique of Drug Policy Alliance said at the rally last week: “We need to tear this whole system down. That happens with courage. That happens with fortitude. It happens with us.”

Published on Nov. 20, 2018 in the Daily Appeal


See also: After the September Democratic primaries overhauled the state Senate, the chamber where criminal justice legislation stalled in recent years, The Appeal: Political Report interviewed two incoming state Senators about the change they want to bring to Albany on criminal justice reform.