7 progressives defeat New York senators. What’s next in Albany?

Alessandra Biaggi and Zellnor Myrie explain the change they’ll bring

Daniel Nichanian

Efforts to reform New York State’s criminal justice system have frequently stalled in Albany. One reason for this is that Republicans controlled the New York Senate for years with the support of nine senators elected as Democrats, eight of whom belonged to the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC). But Democratic voters overhauled state politics on Sept. 13, when six IDC senators lost to progressive challengers in the Democratic primary. IDC leader Jeffrey Klein was defeated by Alessandra Biaggi, whose campaign prioritized criminal justice reform in detail. A seventh Democratic senator who was not an IDC member (Martin Dilan) lost as well against Julia Salazar, a Democratic Socialists of America member who has put decriminalizing sex work at the forefront of her campaign.

I asked two of these challengers what their victories mean for criminal justice reform. “All of the anti-IDC challengers ran unapologetically on the need to make our criminal justice system more fair,” Biaggi said through a spokesperson in an email. “Certainly, within District 34, I will bring a new perspective and sense of urgency to passing meaningful criminal justice reform measures.” Zellnor Myrie, who won a primary in Brooklyn against Senator Jesse Hamilton, concurred. “We are going in with a progressive mandate, we are very well positioned to tell the folks in Albany that look, this is what we have been elected to fight on,” he told me by phone.

The Senate has actually adopted a wave of bills to toughen sentencing in recent years, bills that a majority of the IDC senators has supported. These would expand the use of life without parole sentences and restrict the availability of parole, including by more than doubling the time that some incarcerated people must wait between hearings. One bill, co-sponsored by Klein, would make people liable for homicide if they sell an illicit substance that leads to a fatal overdose. (None of these bills passed the state Assembly.)

Biaggi rejects this approach. “It is unclear why one would push for these laws at a time when crime has been declining for years,” she said. “I do not think that imposing harsher penalties for violent crimes and repeat offenders is best way to reduce violent crime. … And these laws tend to have a disparate impact on communities of color.” She proposes “creating meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation in our prisons and once people reenter society,” and devoting more resources to prison education programs.

Myrie specifically calls for more attention to “front-end” reforms that confront “what’s feeding into the system.” He outlined three priorities: repealing cash bail to end the “criminalization of poverty,” “speedy trial reform” to counter the “complete discretion” that prosecutors currently enjoy to “delay the process unnecessarily,” and “reform to our discovery laws” so that defendants do not “end up making plea deals without having full context.” Biaggi mentions these goals as well, and calls for passage of the bill targeting cash bail introduced by Senator Mike Gianaris. Myrie makes a similar case for “front-end” reform on immigration policies. He voices support for reforms like the Liberty Act that would assist detained immigrants, but he adds that he would “like to see some things on the front end that would minimize interaction that our immigrant brothers and sisters have with the system.” He proposes enabling undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses, as well as barring ICE agents from being present in courthouses.

The viability of such reforms is most likely dependent on Democrats flipping control of the Senate in November by gaining at least one seat currently controlled by the GOP; this is a goal they have a strong shot to achieve.

published Sept. 23, 2018