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Amid Backlash, Progressive Groups Defend Criminal Justice Reforms

From left to right: NYCLU's Nicole Triplett, New Yorkers United for Justice's Khalil Cumberbatch, Citizen Action of New York's Erin George, and Citizen Action of New York's Amy Jones
Lucas Willard
From left to right: NYCLU's Nicole Triplett, New Yorkers United for Justice's Khalil Cumberbatch, Citizen Action of New York's Erin George, and Citizen Action of New York's Amy Jones

Advocates for criminal justice reforms set to take effect on January 1st in New York are speaking out against the backlash from several upstate officials.

Two weeks after a day of press conferences by county sheriffs and other officials against ending cash bail and other measures going into effect next month, advocates organized their own press event defending criminal justice reforms Thursday in Albany.

At a panel discussion hosted by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Amy Jones discussed her past arrests and how her daughter was removed from her custody 20 years ago.

Jones, who now works with progressive group Citizen Action of New York, says she couldn’t afford a $1,000 bail.

“I didn’t get out of jail for a while and I didn’t have the resources to ever go and fight for custody of her. I was in New York state and she ended up in California,” said Jones. 

The progressive groups say missing from the debate over criminal justice reform during the last several weeks is people who have experienced the system first-hand.

“We need to begin to redefine, just like we’re redefining these pre-trial laws, we need to begin to redefine what public safety looks like. Public safety is families being together,” said Jones.

District attorneys, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officials have banded together to argue for changes to the criminal justice reforms approved as part of the state budget and set to go into effect January 1st.

While many agree that bail reform is needed, they say the changes like a 15-day discovery process create undue burdens on prosecutors who do not have adequate staffing or resources to comply with the new requirements.

Here’s Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins in November.

“We understand the philosophical reason the reforms and I think, to a large extent, we agree with those. But there are a number of unintended consequences we are starting to see. And particularly, here in Albany, one of the things I’m very concerned about is staffing,’ said Hawkins.

Capital Region lawmakers, Democratic state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara and Republican State Senator Jim Tedisco,last week introduced a bill to amend the upcoming bail reforms.

But it would take a special session to bring the legislature together to vote on any changes before the new laws take effect. Governor Andrew Cuomo and fellow Democrats Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have defended the criminal justice reforms.

Khalil Cumberbatch, Chief Strategist of New Yorkers United for Justice, dismissed the notion that the reforms are a threat to public safety.

“If the question would be, ‘If you got the money, if you said that these reforms in your county would cost you blank dollars to scale up, scale out, do whatever you need to do to get ready, would these reforms be a threat to public safety?’ And I would dare to say that many of them would probably say ‘no.’”

As opposition and calls for tweaks continue to grow louder, Nicole Triplett, Policy Counsel with NYCLU, says she wants lawmakers who support the reforms to speak up.

“We’ve demanded for changes to long-established harms that we’ve seen from our pre-trial system. The governor even said in many speeches and public statements that he’s acknowledged the deep inequities of our pre-trial system, so this is not the time for us to dismiss that or for us not to be able to see these reforms go through,” said Triplett.

The New York State legislature is set to reconvene January 8th.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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