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statement by community and advocacy groups on gov cuomo’s 2018 criminal justice reform proposal

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Advocacy Groups from Across the State Applaud Governor Cuomo’s Focus on Reforming New York’s Broken Criminal Justice System 

These Proposals – if Appropriately Written into Law – have the Potential to Dramatically Reduce New York’s Jail Population Across the State 

Community & Advocacy Groups Look Forward to Working with this Administration to Define and Implement these Proposals

Albany, NY: Today, in his 2018 State of the State Address, the Governor outlined his plan to reform a broken criminal justice system in New York, with a particular focus on reforming pretrial practices across the state.

If appropriately drafted and implemented, these proposals have the potential to advance real criminal justice reform, including reducing the jail population in New York State.

Gov. Cuomo’s five-pronged reform proposal included an overhaul of the laws governing bail, including an elimination of monetary bail for people facing misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges; an effort to reduce unnecessary delays and adjournments in court proceedings; an expansion of the discovery process to include disclosure of information in a timely manner including evidence and information favorable to the defense; a ban on all asset seizures, unless an arrest is made; and an improvement of the re-entry process for individuals transitioning from incarceration to their communities.

The governor included elements of bail reform that were laid out in a letter delivered to the administration last year. Endorsed by over 130 statewide and regional community groups, including community organizing groups with directly impacted membership, and advocacy and public defense organizations, the letter outlined principles for reform for New York. These groups are eager to see the governor’s full legislative proposal.

Statements by Community and Advocacy Groups:

“I’m glad to see the Governor taking the right steps toward making the state’s criminal justice system more fair and just for all New Yorkers,” said Donzelle Fyffe, member of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. “I’d just love to see the language he is proposing and the implementation of these plans as soon as possible.”

“Reforming New York’s antiquated system of wealth-based detention should not be an aspiration. It is a moral imperative,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “There is no ‘justice’ in a system that incarcerates people like Bronx teenager Pedro Hernandez — who after being charged with a crime he did not commit, was caged on Rikers for over a year because of burdensome bail conditions. As New Yorkers, we must demand more and work together to hold Albany accountable to the promise of a more just and equitable criminal legal system.”

“The bold changes Governor Cuomo proposed today to the state’s dysfunctional money bail system recognize that money and race cannot be the determinative factors in deciding who goes to jail and who goes home,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society. “We must now act on these proposals, and we must work together to pass real bail reform that begins to unravel an oppressive system that has torn apart our clients’ families and communities of color for generations.”

“The Governor’s package of criminal justice proposals represents an important acknowledgement that we cannot have true criminal justice reform in New York without addressing three core issues: bail, discovery, and speedy trial,” said Justine Olderman, Executive Director of The Bronx Defenders. “The calls for the elimination of money bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies and for the expanded use of alternative forms of bail reflect bold changes that build on New York’s progressive traditions. As the Governor puts meat on the bones of discovery and speedy trial reform, we will be looking for the same bold and progressive vision. The details will ultimately determine the true impact of these reforms. In the weeks to come, we urge the Governor to back these proposals up with action and a commitment to the goals of reducing our jail populations, confronting racial inequality, and ensuring individualized justice.”

“Governor Cuomo today announced groundbreaking steps towards reforming the most regressive policies in New York’s legal system, including ending monetary bail, improving the right to a speedy trial, removing barriers to re-entering society after conviction, and limiting asset forfeiture,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Defender Services. “In particular, BDS strongly supports the Governor’s commitment to improving transparency in criminal cases through fairer discovery laws. This represents an auspicious moment for criminal justice reform in New York.”  

 “We are encouraged that Governor Cuomo recognizes the injustice and discrimination of our current criminal justice system – now he must do something about it,” said Alyssa Aguilera, Co-Executive Director of VOCAL-NY. “Every day, New Yorkers are needlessly incarcerated because they are too poor to afford bail, trials are excessively delayed, or discovery practices prevent the defense from adequately representing their clients. These unfair practices must end, and we look forward to working with the Governor and NYS Legislature to ensure that progressive criminal justice reform is passed in 2018, and that the voices of Black and Latino communities that have been hurt most by mass incarceration are central to those negotiations.”

“We applaud the Governor for including Criminal Discovery reform, a bedrock issue, in his State of the State,” said Miguel Santana of Discovery for Justice. “Unless Criminal Discovery Law is reformed, the criminal justice system will remain inherently unfair. Trials will always favor the prosecution and innocent people will continue to suffer both in convictions and delays. Many trials that could be avoided will continue to waste taxpayers’ dollars. Enacting Open, Early, and Automatic Discovery will remedy all these problems.”

“Today, Governor Cuomo took critical steps forward to bring New York into an era that recognizes our current bail system, discovery procedure, and speedy trial structure are not providing people access to fair and equitable due process,” said Khalil A. Cumberbatch, AVP of Policy at the Fortune Society. “We urge the state legislature to pass these essential reforms, and for advocates to continue holding our representatives accountable until they do.”

“The New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NYSACDL) applauds Governor Cuomo’s announcement of groundbreaking reforms to our criminal justice system,” said NYSACDL President John S. Wallenstein. “In particular, we thank the Governor for recognizing that New York’s antiquated discovery laws that allow prosecutors to withhold critical evidence until the eve of trial are unjust and far out of step with discovery practices in the rest of the country.  Discovery reform is long overdue and the Governor’s announcement is the critical first step in finally making our state’s criminal courts more fair and transparent for all who pass through the courthouse doors. NYSACDL looks forward to working with the Governor to fine tune and hone these proposed criminal justice reforms to achieve a just and
effective criminal justice system.”

“The Governor’s plan to eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies is a step in the right direction,” said Dave Ehlke of Justice Ministries of the Presbyterian Church in New York City. “Given the number of people who are on Rikers Island just because they can’t afford bail, this plan should help accelerate the process of reducing the number of people in the facility and therefore accelerates our ability to finally close it down.”

“Concerned over racial disparity in our criminal justice system, we have worked for decades to bring true reform to our bail system,” said Alice Green, Executive Director of the Center for Law & Justice. “Governor Cuomo’s State of the State message, which recognizes that racial and economic discrimination are inherent in our current bail system, provides some hope that significant changes will be made.  However, much more remains to be done if we are to eliminate the severe racial and economic disparities that we see in current pretrial practices. We will be anxious to see detailed steps that will be taken to significantly reduce the number of people who are charged with crimes, yet sit in our jails simply because they cannot afford to pay for their freedom. This practice seriously harms thousands of low income families forced to find ways to pay for the release of their loved ones.”

“Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address and five-point criminal justice proposal offer needed and humane reforms to New York’s systems of arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and reentry. It is not just cost effective and logical to expand opportunities for geriatric release, it holds the promise of beginning to undo a system of endless punishment that keeps people—including those sentenced for violent crimes—in prison for decades regardless of their remorse, rehabilitation, and readiness to contribute to the community,” said Elizabeth Gaynes, President and CEO of the Osborne Association. “There are now more than 10,000 people incarcerated in New York State who are over age 50 and the number is increasing each year. The data is clear: releasing older adults poses little risk to public safety and their recidivism rates are very low. Across the fields of reentry and aging, a coalition of advocates—including formerly incarcerated elders—and direct service providers have shown what is possible when we prepare and support older adults for release and reentry. We look forward to working with the Governor and legislators to pass this needed and laudable reform.”

“The Interfaith Center of New York welcomes the Governor’s 2018 proposed criminal justice reforms for the State of New York,” said the Rev. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York. “In light of our half-decade of work with houses of worship in Harlem to help individuals returning to the community, we are particularly glad to see the elimination of statutory bans on occupational licensing outside law enforcement, the expansion of rehabilitation program opportunities, the new geriatric provisions for older inmates, and common sense discretion in the area of child-custody payments for returning citizens. Likewise bail reform is a critical step in dismantling a two-track money-based legal system. Overall, ICNY and our faith-based partners in New York City, Circles of Support, applaud the Governor’s efforts to correct our current criminal justice system’s distorted view of justice as retribution rather than restoration.”

“We’re pleased that Governor Cuomo is turning his attention to the unjust practice of cash bail and the need for discovery reform and speedy trial,” said Karen Scharff, Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York. “These reforms are long overdue. To end mass incarceration in our state, we need to pass comprehensive criminal justice reform. Citizen Action looks forward to working with our allies to create a humane justice system that treats all people with dignity.”

“The Governor has proposed positive initiatives to achieve necessary criminal justice reforms,” said Clare Degnan, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Westchester County. “We look forward to working with all parties to create fair and appropriate legislation.”

 This set of proposed reforms is an overdue acknowledgement of the gross injustices our clients face every day at the hands of the criminal justice system, and is a testament to decades of advocacy to dismantle mass incarceration in New York,” said Elena Weissmann, Interim Director of the Bronx Freedom Fund. “We remain committed to ending wealth-based detention for all New Yorkers and preserving the presumption of innocence regardless of charge. If enacted, these bail reforms would mark one of the boldest steps in this direction since the onset of mass incarceration, and significantly strengthen the existing Bail Statute by acknowledging that money bail is unnecessary and unjust. However, we are concerned about the potential introduction of language that would: give judges codified discretion to incarcerate a legally innocent person based on their perceived “threat”; betray the presumption of innocence for certain charges, namely for accusations of violent felonies and domestic violence; and provide judicial latitude in imposing restrictive pretrial conditions for all types of cases. As we continue to fight for justice on the front lines, we will vigilantly monitor implementation of these proposed reforms by documenting and amplifying our clients’ experiences. We look forward to the day when people are no longer caged for their race or poverty.”

“I’m encouraged to see the governor proposing wide ranging criminal justice reform in 2018, including bail reform,” said Donna Hylton, Director of From Life to Life and Board Member of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. “For this five-point proposal to work — particularly with regard to reentry issues — it is imperative that the governor use a gender-specific lens to account for the unique experiences of women in the justice system. I and other formerly incarcerated women are ready to sit down with the governor to ensure that his proposals benefit all New Yorkers.”

“Pretrial detention triggers a cascade of devastating consequences for youth, cutting them off from school, work, and family support,” said Laurie Parise, Executive Director of Youth Represent. “We are encouraged by Governor Cuomo’s proposals to reshape bail and pretrial detention and look forward to continuing to work towards our goal of reducing incarceration for youth in New York.”

“At the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, we see firsthand how money bail punishes and imprisons low-income New Yorkers,” said Peter Goldberg, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. “Governor Cuomo’s proposal to eliminate money bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, with key changes in discovery law and speedy trial process, are necessary and welcomed first steps to decrease the number of people incarcerated pretrial. However, to fully protect the presumption of innocence of all New Yorkers, we need the complete abolition of the money bail system and pretrial incarceration. Ending the money bail system and pretrial incarceration requires bold and comprehensive action from the Governor, including an end to the profit-driven commercial bail bond industry and investment in community-based services that address neighborhood needs.”

“We applaud the Governor for proposing major steps toward equity in our criminal justice system,” said Charles King, President and CEO of Housing Works. “The proposed initiatives on bail reform, fair and speedy trial and improved opportunities upon community reentry that were presented during the State of the State will have a tremendous impact on the individuals and families whose lives and futures are impacted by these systems. For too long, low-income New Yorkers have fallen victim to predatory bail practices, languished unnecessarily in jail waiting for their day in court, and faced punitive limitations on employment and other opportunities as they work to rejoin the community after incarceration.”

“As an economically impoverished county, St. Lawrence County has long been a proponent of criminal justice reform, recognizing both the benefits of change to our economically disadvantaged constituents and the potential savings to our taxpaying citizens,” said Stephen D. Button, County Attorney for St. Lawrence County. “While we anxiously await the release and a review of the finer points of the Governor’s executive budget, any effort to resolve long standing issues in the criminal justice system while enforcing the constitutional right to a speedy trial, should alleviate costs to our families, costs to our communities, and costs to our taxpaying citizenry while ensuring a fair justice system.  We applaud any efforts of the State Legislature and Governor Cuomo in seeking to tackle this important issue.”

“We appreciate the intentions behind the Governor’s proposals, but the implementation shows a lack of familiarity with the daily workings of the criminal court system, particularly with respect to speedy trial,” said Renate Lunn and Naila Siddiqui of Five Borough Defenders. “We commend the Governor’s steps towards abolishing cash bail. As supervised release programs in NYC and local bail funds have demonstrated, monetary payments by a client or her family are not necessary to ensure that someone will return to court. Placing additional burdens on the defense without holding prosecutors accountable, however, is not true speedy trial reform. Prosecutors routinely file certificates of readiness between court dates, but are not ready to proceed on the  scheduled court date.  As the law stands now, a certificate of readiness filed by the prosecution is still considered valid by the courts even if the prosecutor has not turned over all the discovery she is obligated to. Thus, defense attorneys often face prosecutors who declare that they are ready for trial, even as the prosecutors are simultaneously turning over complex discovery which often requires expert assistance to review such as: forensic analysis, DNA testing results, cell phone data records and medical records. True speedy trial reform would address delays caused by prosecutors which prevent us from accessing what we need to prepare our cases for trial. The incremental sharing proposed by the Governor in his tepid discovery reform proposal will only exacerbate the speedy trial problems that the Governor is proposing to address. The proposal that speedy trial motions be filed at least twenty days before trial ignores the fact that the defense is rarely aware whether the prosecutor will be ready by the end of the speedy trial deadline. That is, a prosecutor may say on one court date that they are not ready for trial, but anticipate being ready on a specific date. When the case is adjourned to that date, the prosecutor may then say that they are not ready on that date. That date may in fact be the deadline for the prosecutor to be ready for trial, and thus the defense has every right to file a motion to dismiss at that time. As an association of practicing criminal defense and civil rights attorneys, Five Borough Defenders is eager to meet with the Governor’s staff and the legislature to share our experiences based on what happens daily in New York City’s courts.”

“No one should remain locked up simply because they can’t afford to pay bail,” said Alisa Wellek, Executive Director of the Immigrant Defense Project. “Communities of color, including immigrant communities, have faced disproportionate consequences from the current cash bail system and we are hopeful that New York can play a leadership role in changing these unfair practices.”

“United Voices of Cortland endorses the Governor’s proposal and will work actively with stakeholders to ensure its passage. The governor’s decision not to require bail of people who are accused of misdemeanors is logical and consistent with the Constitutional mandate that we are all innocent until proven guilty,” said Mecke Nagel of United Voices of Cortland. “A misdemeanor, by its very definition, is neither a felony nor a violent felony, so that the justification of the need to safeguard the public is absent. Furthermore, to require the public to pay for the high cost of incarceration of an as-yet innocent person who is not guilty of a violent felony, only serves to punish the public.”

“The Nassau County Criminal Court Bar Association is pleased that criminal justice reforms are part of the Governor’s budget proposals,” said Amy Marion, First Vice President of the Nassau County Criminal Court Bar Association. “We look forward to working with our elected officials to ensure that the spirit of the Governor’s State of the State is codified into New York’s statutes to guarantee that the citizens of our state are secure in their person, place and things and are guaranteed the presumption of innocence critical to a democracy and civilized society.”

“The governor said in his State of the State speech, ‘Race and wealth should not be factors in our justice system,’ and we strongly agree,” said gabriel sayegh, Co-Executive Director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. “While we have yet to see the details in legislative language, we are optimistic that the governor’s proposals are the starting point for progressive reform. The bail reform outline is an excellent start, reflecting many concerns outlined in the reform letter signed by over 130 organizations and sent to the governor last year. On discovery and speedy trial, it’s good both issues are included. With speedy trial, we think more can be done so look forward to sitting down with the governor’s office to discuss details. We applaud the proposal to determine appropriate alternatives to incarceration for those who violate technical parole conditions has strong implications for the ability to significantly reduce the jail population in New York and close the jail complex on Rikers Island once and for all. We look forward to seeing the governor’s legislative language and hope it reflects an intention for progressive criminal justice reforms.”


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