Downstate progressive Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly will fight for decarceration of New York prisons and immigration reform next year, they said Tuesday, citing the party’s new Senate supermajority as the momentum lawmakers need to move their agenda forward.
Nearly 20 progressive legislators threw support Tuesday behind a proposed legislation package they dubbed the Justice Roadmap 2021 agenda to protect communities of color and immigrants from unjust imprisonment and deportation, calling for less violence in community policing.
The proposed state reforms include passing legislation for parole reform to end solitary confinement in state prisons through the HALT Solitary Confinement Act (S.1623/A.2500); ensure Fair and Timely Parole (S.497/A.4346); and Elder Parole (S.2144/A.9040) to require incarcerated New Yorkers over age 55 who have served 15 or more consecutive years be considered for parole regardless of their crime or sentence.
Democrats also propose to end local law enforcement collaboration with ICE, or New York For All bill (S.7562/A.9586); and legalize marijuana with the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (S.1527C/A.1617C), which legalizes recreational marijuana for adults over 21 and reinvests the tax revenue in communities of color, among others next year.
“We see a system that has racial and economic bias every single day of our lives,” Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, D-Manhattan, said Tuesday during a rally outside the New York County Courthouse. “I stand here with advocates across the state to say, ‘I need a new strategy.’
“The criminalization of poverty has gone on for too long where the criminalization of power doesn’t exist in our society,” Epstein added, calling for mental health and substance abuse addiction and recovery support for inmates and New Yorkers in poor and minority communities. “We need to stop criminalizing so many people and people of color in our state. I’m going to fight with you as we walk in 2021 to ensure we have real criminal justice reform in New York. As we move to 2021, let’s have a more just world.”
Advocates gathered in-person at the New York County Courthouse in Manhattan, Nassau County Supreme Court in Mineola, Long Island; Westchester County Court in White Plains; the Buffalo Holding Center in the Erie County city; and the Underground Railroad Site in Troy to fight for passage of the Justice Roadmap 2021 legislation. A table with an empty chair was situated at each rally location to symbolize the incarcerated New Yorkers separated from their family’s dinner tables through the holiday season.
Other legislation in the proposal includes decriminalizing sex work and the possession and sale of syringes, repealing the Walking While Trans Ban (S.2253/A.654); as well as the End Predatory Court Fees (A.11083) and Eliminate Parole and Probation Fees (S.4322/A.5968) to prevent mounting legal financial burdens targeting Black and brown New Yorkers, such as all bank surcharges and supplemental penalties.
“This system systematically disadvantages our communities — the poor communities, the people of color — people who are trying to make a living,” said Assemblymember Carmen de la Rosa, D-Manhattan. “We have to prioritize community safety ... not targeted imprisonment. Part of this platform is making sure our elders, people who have transformed their lives in prisons and chained in prison parolees, have access to elder parole and fair and timely parole.”
Representatives from the more than 150 advocacy organizations have endorsed the proposals, including New York Civil Liberties Union, New York Immigration Coalition, Center for Community Alternatives, Drug Policy Alliance and VOCAL-NY.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined to comment on the progressives’ agenda.
“The department does not comment on proposed legislation,” DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said in a statement Tuesday.
Democrats expressed excitement Tuesday over their new veto-proof, two-thirds supermajority heading into 2021 after gaining two seats in last month’s elections. The party stands to represent 42 seats of the 63-person chamber, and said the next session marks the time to act.
“We have a chance to dismantle policies that criminalize our communities and stop the system that stops vulnerable groups,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, of Manhattan said.
Niou is against the construction of new jails, she said, adding the criminal justice system must be changed, but that fight for change is nothing new.
“It’s not that it’s broken, I say, but it’s designed to be harmful — it’s designed to be racist,” Niou said. “It’s designed to be deeply flawed and really designed to hurt our communities fo color. We have so much work that we need to do.”
The Transparency in Police Custody Act, or Senate bill 8707, is also part of the group of progressives’ agenda, and would allow family members and lawyers to locate people in police custody and ensure their basic human rights are being upheld, according to the Justice Roadmap 2021 report.
Marvin Mayfield, statewide organizer at the Center for Community Alternatives, led Tuesday’s event pleading for justice for incarcerated New Yorkers he said are denied basic human rights.
“We call for community safety over police power,” Mayfield said. “We call for the decarceration of jails and prisons. We demand all people are treated with dignity. We call for the end of wealth extraction and deportation.
“The 2020 elections were the (next step) to fight systemic racism. The time is now,” he added.
State Republican leaders said Tuesday that the proposals focusing on decarceration and immigration reform do not affect the majority of New Yorkers — especially as the state anticipates a growing $14 billion revenue shortfall, with more than $30 billion expected over two years and $64 billion in four years.
“Clearly, these radical progressives are unaware New York is currently in fiscal ruin and our small businesses and middle-class are suffering,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said in a statement Tuesday. “Instead of advancing an out-of-touch agenda, we need a roadmap for recovery focused on improving the quality of life for hard-working New Yorkers and ailing small businesses.”
Senate Republicans plan to put forward an agenda in the next session that prevents higher tax payments for New Yorkers and focuses on economic development to combat the Democratic supermajority’s ideology.
“We will be very vocal in our positions and making New Yorkers aware of what’s happening in Albany,” a Senate Republican spokesperson said Tuesday.
Republicans largely campaigned on strengthening public safety, arguing the state’s controversial bail reform, which lawmakers rolled back in April in the 2020-21 budget, releases criminals to commit further crimes and contributes to ongoing racial issues and tensions with law enforcement.
State Republicans have often spoken out against the state’s one-party Democratic rule, as Democrats lead the Assembly, Senate and Executive chambers.
“One-party rule has repeatedly failed the interests of New Yorkers, especially with respect to criminal justice legislation that has continually prioritized criminals over law-abiding citizens,” Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski, said in a statement Tuesday. “The last time Democrats tried to make wholesale changes to the criminal justice system, the response from the law enforcement community and residents was overwhelmingly negative. The so-called ‘reform’ measures were so misguided eventually a number of the policies were walked back.”
Barclay criticized the state’s bail reform Tuesday for releasing numerous defendants criminally charged on various misdemeanors without bail, and said the proposed legislation to inhibit communication between federal law enforcement agencies and local police “is the antithesis of how police work should be conducted.”
“Stunting this communication is dangerous for federal agents, local police and the public,” Barclay said. “These reforms have been a disaster and completely disregard the victims.
“Democrats must start recognizing that law enforcement agencies must first be given the tools they need to protect the public,” the Assembly leader added. “There are ways to reduce the prison population and unburden the judicial system that do not come at the expense of public safety and the officers who risk their lives every day to keep us safe. Sadly, common-sense reform has taken a back-seat to unchecked extremism driven by political agendas that do not put the people first.”
Dozens of advocates from the same groups led similar rallies at multiple state prisons across New York on Dec. 9 and in late October to urge Cuomo to reduce the number of incarcerated people in New York.
Earlier this year, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision released more than 3,050 inmates early based on individualized reviews, including individuals who have had their low-level parole violations canceled, people committed on non-violent, non-sex offenses within 90 days of their approved release date, and pregnant or postpartum women who committed non-violent, non-sex offenses, and were within 180 days of their approved release date.
The Justice Roadmap agenda also calls for passage of Access to Representation Act (S.7261/A.9125) to establish immigrants’ first right to legal counsel and Right to In-Person Visits (S.2698/A.2483) at all state jails and prisons.
The 2021 state legislative session is scheduled to start Jan. 6 and end June 10.