Sept. 20, 2018: Political Report

Daniel Nichanian

New York Democrats closed the primary season by rejecting a sheriff known for his aggressive practices and several senators who supported tougher sentencing. I explore what’s next in New York, and look into general elections in California and Maryland.

  • New York: Alessandra Biaggi and Zellnor Myrie explain the change they’ll bring to Albany

  • California: Marin County hosts rare runoff for district attorney

  • MarylandBen Jealous details his reform and decarceration goals

  • New York:  Ulster County sheriff loses primary centered on immigration and opioids, but a November rematch awaits


New York: Alessandra Biaggi and Zellnor Myrie explain the change they’ll bring to Albany

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.


California: Marin County hosts rare runoff for district attorney

Many of California’s elections for district attorney were resolved in June, but Marin County hosts a November runoff between county prosecutor Lori Frugoli and former federal prosecutor Anna Pletcher. Frugoli came close to the majority threshold needed to win outright in the June primary, receiving 49 percent to Pletcher’s 31 percent. Both are running as Democrats; Pletcher is endorsed by the Marin Democratic Party.

Frugoli is backed by many law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Bob Doyle. Doyle has implemented a policy of close cooperation with ICE, providing ICE with the release dates of people in its custody. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that over the first four months of 2018 Doyle complied with 90 percent of ICE requests for release dates, compared to none in nearby San Francisco. Doyle faced no opponent in this year’s sheriff race. But his immigration policy has trickled into the DA race. Asked about it at a candidate forum, Frugoli answered with circumspection that, while she would prefer providing fewer release dates, she understood the policy and the reason for it.

At the same forum, Pletcher warned of the consequences of “a community [that is] afraid to rely on law enforcement to keep them safe.” She later wrote an op-ed on this for the Marin County Bar Association. “The Marin Sheriff’s policy creates a situation where anyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system is at risk for deportation,” she writes. “Prosecutors can use the tools at their disposal to rebuild trust in the community.” She points out that prosecutors can avoid triggering deportation proceedings by specifically relying on diversion programs that do not rely on a guilty plea. Frugoli has also said that she would have prosecutors consider immigration consequences when making prosecutorial decisions.

While campaigning, both candidates speak about wanting to expand the use of restorative justice and to get more local actors invested in that process. Both also propose devoting more resources to helping people obtain expungements; Frugoli says she would hire a “social justice deputy district attorney” to oversee this. Neither candidate commits to never seeking the death penalty.

A rift emerges, however, over how to treat young defendants. Only Pletcher commits to not seeking life without parole for offenses a person committed under the age of 25; and only Pletcher commits also to not prosecuting minors as adults. Importantly, Pletcher does not restrict that second answer to low-level offenses. “Youth who have committed violent crimes should also be considered for diversion or restorative programs,” she says.


Maryland: Ben Jealous details his reform and decarceration goals

Criminal justice reform is at the forefront in Maryland, where Republican Governor Larry Hogan is running against Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee and former head of the NAACP. Jealous has released a detailed and ambitious platform that outlines how he would overhaul Maryland’s criminal justice system and reduce its prison population by 30 percent.

Jealous’s plan calls for reversing “the advent of so-called tough on crime policies” by shifting resources currently used to incarcerate people unto education, treatment, and re-entry programs. He proposes curbing sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums, legalizing marijuana, and easing people’s ability to obtain parole and expunge their records. The plan also sets a goal of reducing pretrial detentions by building on a 2017 judicial ruling that curbed the use of cash bail but also increased the number of people held without bail.

An interesting feature of this document is that it repeatedly frames reform proposals as a way of bringing to Maryland practices already implemented elsewhere. For instance, it calls for emulating Delaware by establishing an Innocence Project that reviews convictions, Missouri by requiring that the costs associated with a judicial sentence be made public, and New York by creating new restrictions on police profiling and independent reviews for police officers.

This race for governor in Maryland is probably one of our most significant opportunities for change in criminal justice policy in the state in some time,” Larry Stafford Jr., the executive director of the advocacy group Progressive Maryland, told me. He notes that Maryland took an important step in 2016 with the Justice Reinvestment Act, which the legislature adopted and Hogan signed. The act ended some mandatory minimum sentences, strengthened diversion opportunities, and enabled sentence reductions, helping decrease the state’s prison population. But “there’s a serious movement to take us back” toward “regressive conservative policies and crackdown policies,” Stafford warned.

In April, Maryland adopted a law that created new mandatory minimums. Yale University’s James Forman Jr. argued in a Baltimore Sun op-ed that mandatory minimum sentences “do not prevent or deter crime” but “exacerbate racial disparities in incarceration rates.” Stafford points to the influence of Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat who leads the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee and who helped push through this legislation. In the current legislative session, Zirkin also shepherded a bill to overturn the judicial rule curtailing the use of cash bail; the Senate adopted it, but not the House of Delegates. Zirkin and Hogan “are working hand in hand on a lot of things” but “Ben Jealous as governor may make the designs of Bobby Zirkin very difficult to achieve,” Stafford says.


New York: Ulster County sheriff loses primary fought over immigration and opioids, but November will be a rematch

Paul Van Blarcum faced no opponent in 2014 when he won a third term as the Democratic sheriff of Ulster County. In fact, he was endorsed by the Democratic, Republican, Independent, and Conservative parties. But Van Blarcum was resoundingly rejected by his party on Sept. 13, losing the Democratic primary 82 percent to 18 percent to Juan Figueroa, a retired state trooper. What changed? “Trump made us look at these local issues and evaluate our local elected officials and ask ourselves, ‘is this what we want?’” Andrew Zink, head of the Ulster County Young Democrats, told The Nation. Van Blarcum has been in office since 2007, but the Trump era made it more widely glaring that his policies are relevant to political contestation.

In 2015, Van Blarcum began to check for arrest warrants for anyone entering the Department of Social Services (DSS) to gain access its services. He stopped the practice when the state attorney general’s office questioned its legality and slammed its disproportionate impact on people of color. He has also drawn attention for statements he issued on the Facebook page of the sheriff’s office. In 2015, he urged licensed residents to “please” carry a firearm. Two years later, he called for boycotting the National Football League over some players’ actions protesting racial injustice. “They show an utter lack of patriotism and total disrespect for our veterans,” he wrote.

Van Blarcum proactively cooperates with ICE. His office notifies ICE of foreign-born persons it arrests. “We do immigration-naturalization checks on everybody that comes in,” he told Hudson Valley One. “We would get a hold of customs and immigration and ask if they’re interested in picking the person up,” he explained elsewhere. Figueroa casts Van Blarcum’s “hard-line policy of reporting immigrants” as a threat to public safety. “Immigrants should feel safe to seek the protection of the law,” a Figueroa flier says. Figueroa would provide ICE information when ICE has a warrant and when an individual is convicted of a felony. “I am not an extension of ICE and I will not be contacting ICE for minor offenses,” he said.

Figueroa has also denounced Van Blarcum’s policy of checking DSS visitors. “What he did there was to take on the underprivileged that we have in our community,” Figueroa told Hudson Valley One. “The poor people who aren’t going to say anything because they’re there to get help.” In addition, Figueroa has spoken about changing the county’s policies on opioids. The opioid crisis “is not a problem we can simply arrest our way out of,” he wrote in an April op-ed, and he contrasts the prevailing emphasis on prosecution with approaches focused on treatment and public health.

Van Blarcum and Figueroa face each other again in November because Van Blarcum is endorsed by the Republican, Independent, and Conservative parties. Ulster County leans Democratic—it hasn’t voted for a GOP presidential candidate in 30 years—but Van Blarcum could win if he retains enough support among Democratic voters.


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