City’s public defenders urge lawmakers to pass ‘critical’ criminal justice reforms

Criminal justice reforms that were left out of the state budget should be passed by lawmakers before the end of the legislative session in June, the city's five primary public defender organizations say.
Criminal justice reforms that were left out of the state budget should be passed by lawmakers before the end of the legislative session in June, the city’s five primary public defender organizations say. Photo Credit: Show: Up! / @rebeccagirl2013 via Instagram

The city’s five primary public defender organizations have teamed up to put pressure on the state legislature to pass meaningful criminal justice reforms after the measures were left out of the state budget.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, the organizations argued the proposals are critical to ensuring a fair criminal justice system.

The proposals include the elimination of pretrial detention for low-level offenses; setting a speedy trial requirement to keep people from being held in jail for months awaiting trial; and changing discovery rules to allow defendants access to all evidence before making a plea.

“From our experiences, we have an intimate knowledge and urgent concern about the fundamental problems plaguing New York’s criminal justice system,” the letter, dated April 2, says. “For decades, New York State’s antiquated and outmoded laws on these key issues have undermined the presumption of innocence, led to mass incarceration, allowed intolerable court delays, and enabled wrongful convictions.”

The letter was signed by Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge with the Legal Aid Society, Lisa Schreibersdorf, founder and executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, Justine Olderman, executive director of The Bronx Defenders, Matthew W. Knecht, managing attorney with The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and Stan German, executive director of New York County Defender Services.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a five-pronged package in January that included these reforms as part of his 2018 State of the State agenda, and the organizations were led to believe they would be part of the state’s finalized budget after months of discussions with elected officials, a spokesman for the Legal Aid Society said. However, when the budget deal was struck on Friday, the measures were not included.

“We appreciate the difficulty of the budget process, but we are profoundly disappointed that critical criminal justice reforms . . . were not addressed,” the letter says.

A spokesman for Heastie said the reforms “remain a priority” for the Assembly speaker, who vowed to “continue to fight for them in the remainder of the legislative session.”

While denouncing the lack of jail reforms in the budget, Sen. Gustavo Rivera, whose district covers part of the Bronx, placed the blame squarely on Republicans in the Senate.

“The bottom line is that having a Republican-controlled Senate means that common sense reforms don’t become a reality, sadly,” Rivera said on Tuesday.

The lawmaker pointed out how existing criminal justice reforms could not save the life of Kalief Browder, who “languished in Rikers for three years, simply because he and his family could not afford bail.”

Browder, who lived in Rivera’s district before his arrest in 2010, was released from Rikers Island after the charges in his case were dismissed. He died in 2015.

“It is unconscionable that this state will let people languish in jails awaiting trial, punished for being poor, because bail, speedy trial, and real criminal justice reforms for every New Yorker were not a priority in budget negotiations this year,” Rivera added.

The onus now falls on state lawmakers to pass existing measures proposed in the Assembly and Senate that would ensure these reforms become law before the session ends in June, the attorneys argue in the letter.

“The time for meaningful reform has come. Impacted communities and the greater public — your constituents — now recognize the profound injustices that Albany has permitted to exist for decades, while other states have taken action to fix the problems,” the letter says. “We need genuine change, and we need it this year.”

A poll released by FDW.us on March 8 found New York voters overwhelmingly support the reforms, with 71 percent of those polled in favor of limiting pretrial detention, 90 percent approving of setting a speedy trial requirement and 78 percent backing transforming the discovery process.

The likelihood of lawmakers achieving that goal, however, is slim, Rivera said.

“We are kind of in the middle of a weird political situation,” he explained, citing the April 24 special election to fill nine vacant seats in the Assembly and two in the Senate.

Even if Democrats win the two open Senate seats and the party regains control of the chamber, there wouldn’t be enough time for lawmakers to pass comprehensive legislation before the session ends on June 20, River said.

“We are having discussions on what we can move in a short amount of time,” he added. “I can tell you that we will continue to fight . . . and hopefully we’ll be in a better position to tackle these issues next year.”

Requests for comment from Klein and Flanagan regarding the letter were not immediately returned.