During her time as lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul has said it’s time to “rethink our criminal justice system,” and reiterated that she has “evolved” from her previous push against driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Now she’s days away from being governor after a sexual harassment scandal resulted in the pending resignation of her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo. Her governorship, which begins Aug. 24, will come amid a surging coronavirus delta variant, as well as its ensuing social and economic upheaval — all of which have disproportionately impacted communities of color.
Despite her prior stance on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, many advocates hope Hochul will pursue a robust agenda, including racial justice and parole and immigration reform.
And many of those same voices view Hochul with much more optimism than Cuomo, who signed bail reform and whose administration oversaw several prison closures but who has been criticized for being unrelenting toward his opponents.
“New York is at a crossroads,” said Gabriel Sayegh, co-executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. “We have an opportunity in New York to pursue an agenda on equity, an agenda on healthcare reform and justice reform.”
HOCHUL: REFORM HAS TO HAPPEN
In the past, Hochul has supported many measures put forth by the Cuomo administration as his lieutenant.
In a July interview with WBFO-FM, she said bail reform enacted under the Cuomo administration created a fairer criminal-justice system but said there may need to be adjustments to the law, which eliminated cash bail for many misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
“Think about the system that existed in this state prior to our reforms, where two individuals are accused of the exact same offense. One ends up going free walking the streets, the other incarcerated. The only difference: whether one was rich or poor, whether they had the money to make bail,” she told the news outlet. “So that is no longer the system in the state of New York. I think most people agree that that is a fairer system.”
Hochul’s support for repealing the walking while trans ban was key to getting it taken off the books, said New York Civil Liberties Union Policy Counsel Jared Trujillo.
Passed in 1976, the prior law allowed authorities to halt people loitering for prostitution. But it was frequently used to discriminate against transgender people, repeal advocates said.
Trujillo hopes Hochul’s advocacy on the repeal is indicative of her desire to weigh in on the criminal legal system with an understanding of intersectionality.
“I’m hopeful based upon the work that she did on walking while trans and really her ability to see that criminal legal system issues aren’t just criminal legal system issues,” he said. “They’re also immigration issues, and economic issues, and family issues, and just a number of other things that really support the entire human.”
On the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, Hochul tweeted, “It’s on all of us to recognize, step up and confront the systemic racism, inequalities and injustices in our society.”
And when police shoved protestor Martin Gugino in her native Buffalo, leaving him injured, Hochul told WAMC the incident was a difficult sight.
During the interview, she added, this is the time to think about reform and the role of policing in communities.
“Reform is always tough,” she told WAMC. “It’s always resisted, but it has to happen.”
Hochul could not be reached for comment for this article.
‘WE’RE NOT TAKING ANYTHING FOR GRANTED’
Hochul will now define her path, though there could be some approved reform bills from Cuomo’s time in office that will be waiting for her when she becomes governor.
One such bill may be the Less Is More Act, which would allow those on parole who are accused of non-criminal technical violations to be issued a violation and a date to appear instead of being taken into custody. The bill has gotten support from a wide coalition, including several faith leaders and district attorneys from across the state.
But Cuomo has not signed the measure into law, said Sayegh of the Katal Center, a leading organization behind the proposal. Sayegh hopes Hochul will sign it if Cuomo doesn’t, and that she’ll go further.
Other legislation that could be waiting for Hochul’s approval includes the Start Act. The measure would allow sex trafficking survivors to ask the court to clear convictions for offenses resulting from being trafficked and ensure their information is kept private, advocates say.
“We would hope that Governor Hochul would step in and tackle those problems with real energy and to work with New Yorkers who are impacted by these issues,” he said. “And, really try to advance policies that are focused on equity and trying to unravel the injustice that becomes too familiar.”
“We’ll celebrate her when we think she is doing right,” he said. “We’ll challenge her where we think she’s not.”
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” he added.
Jose Saldana, of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign, or RAPP, has been trying to get parole reform passed; last year, his organization threw its support behind several measures, including two parole reform bills.
Neither of the two passed. Saldana said that thousands of families with incarcerated loved ones are “counting” on Hochul to take a stand on mass incarceration by granting more clemencies and supporting parole reforms.
Saldana is hopeful that his mission to stop people from languishing in prisons will have better chances under a Hochul administration.
“Tens of thousands of families with incarcerated loved ones across the state are counting on incoming Gov. Hochul to turn the page on this ugly chapter in our history that we call mass incarceration by expanding the use of clemencies and promoting fair and common-sense parole reforms,” he said.
‘PROCEED WITH CAUTION’
Hochul said in a press conference that she’s still building her senior staff and said that she’ll lay out her vision for the state shortly after becoming governor.
Eddie Taveras, state immigration director of pro-immigration group FWD.us, said having diversity among Hochul’s staff is an early indicator of where she stands.
Another will be how her administration handles the distribution of money for the Excluded Worker Fund, a $2.1 billion fund meant to assist many jobless immigrant workers who were excluded from unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
“I go into this moment with more of an open mind and hoping that she takes this opportunity to redefine what she stands for and how inclusive immigrant and immigrant communities will be a part of that,” Taveras said.
But Hochul’s past stance against giving driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants as Erie County clerk still resonates with some. She was against former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal in 2007 to grant licenses to undocumented immigrants and said she would have them arrested if they applied for one in Erie County.
Later, in 2019, she penned an opinion piece in support of the Green Light Law. The law, signed by Cuomo, ultimately allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for New York driver’s licenses, 12 years after Spitzer’s initial push.
“I had taken a position that has now evolved,” Hochul said at an Aug. 11 news conference. “And that evolution coincides with the evolution of many people.”
Taveras said he would also like her administration to shepherd legislation that would help immigrants economically, such as allowing them to get occupational licenses and addressing language barriers.
Still, Taveras said, “We’ll proceed with caution.” Hochul’s actions in the next few months, he said, “will really determine her incoming legacy.”