The hotly debated reforms have barely been in effect for a month and yet conservatives, law enforcement, and White supremacists have made it their job to stoke terror and mislead the general public about the importance of these reforms. Advocates, organizers, and community members have spent years educating elected officials about the significant racial disparities in our criminal justice system. They demonstrated the unjust impact that our laws have on Black and Latino communities, and an outgrowth of that work was the understanding and desire to make New York move closer to racial justice. Sadly, we have barely reached our first month of implementation, and we are risking backsliding by giving into white supremacy and complicit misinformation by some media.
Our elected officials painstakingly worked to devise a law that could slightly ease the racial oppression that we all know exists in our criminal justice system. They made informed and deliberate choices to move to open discovery to allow people who are accused a fair chance to defend themselves. They purposefully left out dangerousness in the bail statue because that was one of the few things we were already doing right. The elected officials who worked on this issue understood the historically racist use of “dangerousness” as a term that has been weaponized against Black people in this country since slavery. Elected officials and advocates recognized that whenever discretionary determinations of dangerousness were allowed, specifically Black people and other marginalized people—LGBTQ people, disabled people, and immigrants—would always be classified as dangerous.
This was not an oversight. This was a reckoning with our own painful national history.
Legislators worked with advocates, law enforcement, defenders, and directly impacted community members to construct legislation that would tackle this long history of racial subjugation that is historically inherent in the criminal justice system. These laws were created through a process, in which law enforcement had ample opportunity to influence the structure of these reforms – even to the detriment of achieving racial equity – and they were heard and the laws were shaped by their voice too. Yet, law enforcement and the GOP are now partnering with white supremacists to use tired racists dog whistles to replace a democratic process with their will. Opposers of the reforms are creating unnecessary panic, manipulating and pitting marginalized communities against each other. When these reforms were first shaped, Albany understood that communities of color had been harmed, and these reforms were created to address some of the root causes of that harm. To change them now is to literally say you are aware that Black, Latino and other marginalized people will continue to be targeted and harmed by the criminal justice system and you do not care, you are actually aligned with White supremacists.
Any changes that add pretrial racial profiling or expand unjust money bail to these reforms are an intentional attack against communities of color, disabled people, LGBTQ people, and mentally ill people. These are the marginalized communities that have been locked up pretrial, have died in state custody for petty allegations, and who need resources outside of the criminal justice system to prevent further exploitation and harm. Any politicians that support changing these bills without addressing the vast racial discrimination, ableism, and transphobia that historically and currently is harming people in our criminal justice system, should not be trusted by any marginalized community. Any politician who capitulates to the racist rhetoric and blatant racisms of the fearmongers, does not deserve to represent New Yorkers.
What we have learned thus far with the reforms in place is that our state has used the criminal justice system to cover up a lack of resources for mentally ill people. We have learned that many of our prosecutors across the state are ill-equipped to practice law in a way that does not rely on stacking the deck against vulnerable, low-income, Black and brown communities. Albany clearly desires to act quickly, but not in a meaningful way to address these real social problems. Instead elected officials seem to want to bring out a rug to cover these issues up. We demand Albany to focus their energy towards making New York the progressive state everyone claims it is. Albany must not change these laws in a regressive move towards throwing away our marginalized community members, instead they must show courage and partner with impacted communities to address these problems so that New York can be a safer state for everyone.
Anne Oredeko is the supervising attorney in the Racial Justice Unit of the Legal Aid Society.