The difficult road to criminal justice reform

The most striking image from Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s State of the City address yesterday occurred midway through, when she began speaking about Kalief Browder. He was the young man accused but never convicted of stealing a backpack, and held without trial on Rikers Island for three years, much of that time in solitary confinement.

Unable to reorient himself to society, he killed himself.

Shameful, Mark-Viverito called it, repeating the word in Spanish: vergüenza. Browder “entered as a child, but left as a broken man.”

“There are certainly other Kaliefs out there,” she added.

She thanked Browder’s mother for being at the speech, and the audience rose and applauded, while Browder’s mother wiped away a tear.

Browder’s story formed the moral rationale for the speech’s push for further criminal justice reform, a topic being debated anew around the country in the wake of the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, and elsewhere. That conversation now includes the chapter of the conviction of Peter Liang, the NYPD officer who last night was found guilty of manslaughter and official misconduct in the death of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn in 2014.

In the speech, which was delivered before the Liang conviction, Mark-Viverito called for forgiveness for old warrants for low-level offenses, and announced a commission to “explore a community-based justice model,” and a pathway that could lead to the closure of Rikers–which has become a symbol of a broken criminal justice system and the emblem of the two-cities divide Mayor Bill de Blasio hammered home in his election campaign.

Rewind to de Blasio’s State of the City
De Blasio, of course, gave his own State of the City address last week. It was markedly upbeat. He highlighted the successes of his progressive agenda, including the continued fight for a $15 minimum wage and establishing paid leave programs. He reminded viewers about the 750,000 people signed up for IDNYC. He talked about affordable housing both built and forthcoming, sidestepping the brutal neighborhood opposition to his most ambitious affordable housing plans which are now awaiting final approval from the City Council.

The focus of his speech was on the big New York family: “the tale of two cities transforming into one New York.” It was a feel-good address about the connections we’ve forged with our neighbors culminating in a new transportation connection, a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar. What was missing: the big-picture visions for reducing inequality.

When the mayor addressed policing, it was to briefly point to the expansion of neighborhood policing pilot programs, and the establishment of bias training for officers starting in the spring. This followed a collection of anecdotes highlighting heroic actions by first responders.

In an eerie coincidence, as the mayor gave a speech noting the dangers of police work, two officers were shot in the Bronx. The officers, who survived, had been doing a vertical patrol in NYCHA housing, the same controversial maneuver that led to Gurley’s death.

The two shootings underscore the difficult road for de Blasio as he tries to move forward on criminal justice reform, a cause integral to his mayoral win. Once in office, he has had to face the new priorities of retaining the support of the police and reassuring the larger public that he is maintaining a safe and orderly city while remaining true to his commitments to create a fairer justice system.

Mark-Viverito, however, is freer to push for criminal justice reform. A package of bills now before the council would move low-level offenses from criminal to civil courts, and the proposals she announced yesterday will soon be on the agenda, though most require cooperation with the administration and relevant agencies.

A spokeswoman for the mayor said the administration looks forward to discussing the outstanding warrants with the criminal justice community and working with the new commission on these essential issues.

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