This open letter is on behalf of the VOCAL-NY Civil Rights Union
We are frustrated. Last week marked the third anniversary of the death of Kalief Browder and despite politicians all but falling over themselves to invoke his name, not a single piece of legislation has been passed in Albany that would have helped him. It is also almost two years since the death of Kalief’s mother, Venida Browder, who died in October 2016 of a broken heart following her son’s suicide.
In addition to this obvious tragedy, the case for substantive criminal justice reform in New York has already been made. Every year 200,000 people – predominantly people of color – cycle through jails across the state. Most are held in jail before trial, legally innocent but unable to afford the money bail sought by District Attorneys and set by Judges. Meanwhile New York remains the only state in the country without a true speedy trial rule, meaning thousands of people languish for months – and sometimes years – just waiting for their case to be processed through the system. While this is happening, prosecutors are withholding and delaying evidence, taking advantage of one of the worst Discovery laws in the country.
The criminal justice system is supposedly about accountability, but no one is doing anything to hold prosecutors, judges, police, or law makers accountable for these pre-trial injustices. We have spent the past six months traveling to Albany to meet with legislators at great personal expense on behalf of those thousands unable to because they remain behind bars. We have missed work, delayed medical appointments and spent countless time away from our families in order to tell our stories and lobby for real change in Albany. We are demanding a dramatically smaller criminal justice system, the end to wealth and race-based disparities in our courts and jails and transparency and accountability for prosecutors and judges.
But now here we are, with two weeks left in the legislative session and Governor Cuomo (and everyone else) is telling us that nothing is possible – that the Republican-controlled Senate will not allow anything to pass. Well, we cannot wait!
At VOCAL-NY we talk a lot about leadership. Telling constituents to “wait until next year” is not that. Leadership looks like taking a principled stand for what is right (no matter the odds) and then expending the resources – personal, capital or otherwise – to get something done.
Now, we know that Republicans will not be helpful in our efforts to build a more just society – but Democratic leaders are also letting us down. The plain truth is that Governor Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and even Senate Democrats have not been willing to go all out for criminal justice reform – have not been willing to use every tool, have not been willing to spend the necessary political capital or risk their own personal political futures to get this done.
That must be a nice option while thousands suffer in jails.
Respectfully, our demands remain the same as in January. We seek the immediate passage of:
1) Bail reform: S3579-A (Gianaris) / A5033-A (O’Donnell)
2) Discovery reform: S7722 (Bailey) / A10135 (Blake)
3) Prosecutor Accountability: S2412D (DeFrancisco) / A5285C (Perry)
4) Eliminating Commercial bail bonds: S8146 (Benjamin) / A10394 (Blake)
Nick Encalada-Malinowski is the Civil Rights Campaign Director at VOCAL-NY.