In the midst of a chaotic legislative session in which the governor faces growing calls for his resignation, state lawmakers and advocates say that they are determined to pass an ambitious package of bills aimed at overhauling the state's parole system, banning solitary confinement, and directing half of all profits from legalized cannabis to communities that were harmed under prohibition.
A report from the Columbia University Center for Justice released on Wednesday estimated that passing the bulk of this legislation, along with closing more upstate prisons, would save the state $1.52 billion annually.
Bronx State Senator Gustavo Rivera, the main sponsor of a bill that would force the state parole board to grant parole to New Yorkers unless they pose a documented, "unreasonable risk" to society, told Gothamist that addressing Governor Andrew Cuomo's sexual harassment and nursing home scandals would not interfere with criminal justice reforms.
"Regardless of whether it’s Governor Hochul or the current guy, it is about the right thing to do," Rivera said. "And we will continue to pressure to make sure that these measures are taken up."
The parole reform bill with the most institution support is the Less is More Act, which is aimed at curbing the number of people on parole who are sent back to prison on "technical" violations, such as being late to an appointment, or testing positive for alcohol or marijuana. New York incarcerates more people for these violations than any other state in the country, and 40% of everyone sent to prison in New York in 2019 was there on a technical violation, costing state taxpayers $683 million, according to another report authored by A More Just NYC coalition and Columbia University. The bill has been endorsed by seven district attorneys across the state, including those in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
Rivera's bill, called the Fair & Timely Parole Act, along with the Elder Parole bill, which would force the parole board to consider all prisoners who are 55 and older and who have served at least 15 years of their sentence, would release more than 10,000 people from state prisons over the next decade.
Recent studies have shown that New York's parole system disproportionately incarcerates Black and Latino people. An analysis of 19,000 parole decisions by the Albany Times Union last year showed that white people were significantly more likely to be released out on parole.
"Nobody wants to talk about the racial dynamics here, but this is a clear-cut, racially disproportionate dynamic where Black, brown, and Latinx people are the fodder for this mass incarceration system," said Jerome Wright, an organizer with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Solitary Confinement in Western New York.
Wright is advocating for the passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT), which has been opposed by the state correction officers union for years.
“HALT won’t work. We’re convinced of that, and it has nothing to do with the disciplinary aspect of that or anything, and there’s no consequence for bad activity anymore,” Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, said last year.
Wright, who served 30 years in prison, some of it in solitary confinement, called this the "greatest misconception" the public has about solitary confinement.
"I’ve been in solitary with people who’ve had too many postage stamps, or who bet on the Buffalo Bills, or who have been accused of being 'loud and boisterous,'" Wright said. "It has no socially redeeming value. Nobody goes into solitary confinement and comes out better."
While the state did approve some limitations on the use of solitary confinement during last year's session, Wright said that they don't provide prisoners with what they actually need, which is resources to better themselves.
"People who they say need the most help by their behavior, they put in a box and give nothing to. Even these reforms do the same thing," Wright said. "There’s no appreciable uptick in the amount of programming, therapy, treatment, religious access, or any of the things that would make somebody get better."
Spokespeople for the two legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senator Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, did not immediately respond to questions about which bills in the package they supported.
Asked if the governor supported these parole and solitary reform measures, a spokesperson for Cuomo, Jack Sterne, pointed to the governor's decision in December to close an additional three state prisons, his support for marijuana legalization, and the overall 44% reduction in the statewide prison since he took office in 2011.
"Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has been at the forefront of some of the nation’s most progressive criminal justice reforms by spearheading a series of smart and fair policies that have closed prisons and decreased incarceration rates, brought accountability and transparency to our communities' police departments, protected the rights of victims, and upheld due process, all while ensuring New York residents remain safe and secure," Sterne said.
The governor's budget also asks for the authority to be able to close state prisons after giving a 90 day notice, as opposed to the year that is currently required. State prison officials have signaled that they want to eliminate another 1,800 prison beds this year, while advocates say there are as many as 17,000 that could be eliminated, saving the state nearly half a billion dollars.
The governor's proposal to legalize marijuana within the state budget drew harsh criticism for not going far enough to address the harms of marijuana prohibition, while the state legislature’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act—which has been proposed for years—would set aside 50% of the profits from the cannabis industry for social equity. The governor's revised proposal caps the amount at $100 million the first year and $50 million for subsequent years.
Sterne did not say whether the governor would be willing to support the MRTA.
Unlike the sweeping bail reforms passed in 2019 that went into effect last year, there does not seem to be the same kind of concentrated law enforcement pushback on these bills. A spokesperson from the state correction officers' union referred us to their previous statements. The NYPD, which stridently opposed bail reform, has not returned a request for comment. Nor has the NYPD's largest union, the Police Benevolent Association, which has a long record of opposing parole reforms.
While Republican donors attempted to make bail reform a major issue in New York's suburbs, voters rejected the argument and sent a Democratic supermajority to Albany. A ban on “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” which disproportionately criminalized trans women, was repealed last month.
"Bail reform worked, because it dramatically reduced our jail population and reduced the number of people who simply could not afford bail and therefore simply languished in jail," said Jullian Harris-Calvin, the director of the Greater Justice New York program for the Vera Institute. "And it did so without creating an inverse relationship with crime rates."
Harris-Calvin said that the number of New Yorkers jailed overall has risen slightly since the state legislature rolled back some of the bail reforms this past summer, under enormous pressure from law enforcement groups, but said that increase was "most likely due to the remaining discretionary choices that judges and prosecutors and other court actors continue to have" rather than the rollback itself.
The current daily jail population statewide is around 13,000 people, up from around 11,000 in July before the rollback, but down significantly from the 21,000 in March of 2019.
"What happened last year, was that we saw our legislature was willing to roll back bail reform even though the data didn't support this fear mongering and this crazy ‘crime wave’ rhetoric," Harris-Calvin said.
"What is really important moving forward, and one of the obstacles that I think we have in pushing all of this really important and impactful and cost saving legislation— they’re going to have to be courageous," Harris-Calvin said of the legislators. "And they’re going to have to do the right thing in the face of the smoke and mirrors and rhetoric that is just not data informed, and not true."