We’ve Got Issues: Criminal Justice and New York’s Race for Governor

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Molinaro for Governor

Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor, seen with Brooklyn Republican State Sen. Marty Golden.

This is one in a series of articles looking at the policy positions of the men and woman running to be governor of New York State.

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From bail to solitary confinement and parole, a range of criminal justice issues will likely be decided over the next four years. More so than in the primary, gubernatorial candidates in the general election have distinguished themselves on them. Here’s where they stand:

Parole

Republican candidate Marc Molinaro’s campaign has run ads against Cuomo featuring the widow of one of two police officers killed by Herman Bell in 1971.

The state Board of Parole, with members appointed by the governor, released Bell this year. In April, Cuomo signed an executive order that gave back voting rights to parolees, including Bell.

Molinaro was quoted in the New York Post calling the parole board’s decision “a travesty of justice and a bitter insult to the law enforcement community.” He said, “If it was my Parole Board, I would ask for their resignations – today.”

The candidate has called for no parole for “cop killers” and during a recent televised debate decried the newly minted voting rights of sex offenders who can vote at school polling sites.

Cuomo shot back that he disagreed with the parole board’s release of Bell, but stood by the ability of parolees to vote.

“Giving them the right to vote after they have done their time and paid their price to society is a way of reintegrating them,” he said, adding that sex offenders can only vote while supervised and that he’s against allowing them near children.

Maria Haberfeld, professor at John Jay College, says that while Molinaro’s no parole for cop killers platform may appeal to some, she doesn’t necessarily see it being particularly popular in the current political climate.

In stark contrast to Molinaro’s position, Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, would make it even easier for prisoners to get parole, supporting incentives that would enable inmates to earn parole by completing rehabilitative and educational programs.

Haberfeld says she sees this kind of “softer approach” as being more appealing to the state’s electorate.

Bail

Cuomo this year announced his support for the elimination of cash bail for those facing misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, but the plan fizzled. His proposal includes a provision that would allow certain defendants to be jailed for five days until a hearing to determine whether they should be let out with supervision.

The governor also recently introduced an initiative to require stricter state oversight of the bail industry.

When asked a question during the debate about ending cash bail for low-risk individuals, Molinaro said he believes the judiciary has to have some discretion to make sure people who pose a risk to themselves or others don’t end up on the streets.

Hawkins has called for abolishing bail altogether for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and he supports passage of “Kalief’s Law” that would allow judges to set the “trial clock” deadlines to ensure speedy trials.

Larry Sharpe, the Libertarian candidate, wants to end using bail as financial leverage over low level, non-violent offenders. If someone cannot make their bail, he proposes giving them a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet that would allow authorities to track their location. He also wants courts to expand the ways a defendant can pay bond, including allowing them to use a credit or debit card with a pin.

Haberfeld sees a state like New York as primed for bail reform, but thinks that an end to cash bail, as opposed to the elimination of all bail, is most likely.

“It’s much safer to go with something in the middle that reflects something of a reform but not a transformational reform,” she says.

Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College, says that with widespread agreement “that the system is broken and needs to be reformed,” she could see some of the ideas being floated in the campaign informing new policies around bail, even if the candidates pushing those ideas don’t end up winning.

Jails

In April 2017, New York raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, a change the governor pushed for. Youth accused of any category of crime will no longer be detained in adult prisons or jails, including Rikers Island, but will instead be placed in specialized juvenile detention facilities. Sixteen and 17-year-olds charged with felonies will still be seen in the Youth Part of Criminal Court.

During the 2018 State of the State, Cuomo boasted that the state had invested more than $25 million annually in approximately 165 community-based alternatives to incarceration programs under his leadership.

Hawkins would ban solitary confinement. He would also “ban the box, ending the practice of employers and public colleges such as SUNY using criminal history to disqualify applicants before an offer is made. He calls for providing educational opportunities for the incarcerated and would include prisoners in his wider plan to provide free tuition at SUNY, CUNY and community colleges.

Cuomo boasts that under his leadership, the prison population has decreased by more than 6,000 with the closing of 24 prisons and juvenile detention centers, but he’s said little about corruption and brutality in the state’s prison system.

Zaino says that while solitary confinement has raised concerned among constituents, it’s more likely that restrictions will be put on who or when a person can be put in solitary than banning it altogether.

“I don’t think an all-out ban is politically palatable,” she says, noting that many prison officials feel that it’s necessary in some cases.

On banning the box, she says “I think we hear and see more and more about that and I think that’s probably one of the reforms we’ll see enacted.”

Drug Laws

Under Cuomo, New York State ended the Rockefeller-era drug laws that prevented judges to use discretion in sentencing certain cases.

Last year the governor proposed decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, but it didn’t pass the legislature. In July, he released a health department report saying that the pros of legalizing marijuana outweigh the cons. The governor had previously called pot, which he says he experimented with in college, a “gateway drug,” but he now supports legalization.

Molinaro has said he supports decriminalizion of marijuana and that nobody should be in jail because of it. He says he also supports the expansion of medical marijuana, though he didn’t always.

Cuomo’s position has also evolved. He was against medical marijuana during his 2010 campaign for governor, according to the Democrat & Chronicle, and continued to hold that position until 2014.

Hawkins would legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis, as well as instruct the attorney general to defend cannabis producers and consumers prosecuted by the federal government.

He would appoint a commission to recommend policies that would address the impact of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, particularly on communities of color, as well as decriminalize hard drugs by treating low-level possession and consumption as violations, the repercussions of which would include referring people to treatment. Drug trafficking would remain criminal, but he says he would free drug prisoners.

Sharpe claims that the ‘war on drugs’ is lost and cannabis can be used as a way of “growing our state.” He also believes in treating addiction as a health concern rather than a crime, including promoting drug education, establishing overdose protection sites, and reducing the emphasis on law enforcement programs and initiatives focused on non-violent drug-related crimes. He supports reducing and eventually eliminating the prosecution of non-violent drug crimes and wants to see recreational marijuana legalized. He does not, however, want to see the industry regulated more than other agricultural crops such as onions.

According to Haberfeld and other experts, legalization is inevitable. She says based on the national trend, there’s “absolutely” no way it will fail in a state like New York.


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