Five years ago, the City Council enacted the Community Safety Act, which took aim at discriminatory policing practices and instituted a new and more robust accountability structure in the City surrounding policing. When my colleagues and I pushed for these reforms, critics and detractors shunned this legislation, and claimed our proposals would end the drop in crime our City had seen through the ‘90s and ‘00s. We were told that aggressive policing was the only way to keep crime down, and stop-question-and-frisk was an absolute necessity for police; that arrests would deter crime and “Broken Windows” and quality of life enforcement was the way to clean up streets.

I knew those claims weren’t true, and for the past five years, since we passed the Community Safety Act, New Yorkers have experienced the lowest crime numbers in the “seven major index crime” categories (e.g., murder, assault, robbery, etc.) than at any time since the 1950s. While sex crimes are unfortunately up in the city, these low numbers happened alongside plummeting reporting of stop-question-and-frisk by police (with reported use of the tactic falling more than 90% since 2011).

But our work isn’t done, because New York is at a crossroads in criminal justice. I want to take our successes at pushing the police to be better stewards of public safety and make real changes to the larger system that sits on top of policing: our criminal legal system.

While crime continues to drop, that hardly tells the full story of how the system of incarceration, bail, sentencing, and dealing with precursors to crime are still hurting so many in our communities. Our communities are suffering from gun violence that we can reduce; from laws and bureaucracy that incentivize mass incarceration instead of crime prevention and community empowerment; and from sentencing guidelines and bail requirements that tie judges hands and force people into jail for absolutely no good reason, with no conviction, and without any hope of escaping a punitive system.

I will fight to make real changes in this system so that public safety is not automatically equated to policing, and push New York to be a model for all cities that want to emphasize restoring and empowering communities and protecting families from violence and state action. I will stand up for all New Yorkers and fight for a fairer criminal legal system that moves away from punishment just to punish; that de-emphasizes mass incarceration and stresses restorative programs; and that targets gun violence with tried and tested approaches that have nothing to do with over-policing and everything to do with holistically looking at what can be done to prevent it.

The Big Picture for our work in the Public Advocate’s Office: End mass incarceration and the unequal treatment of people of more color in our criminal legal system

The problems inherent in the criminal legal system we have are many, but we can make a real difference right now.

I will advocate for rethinking how the courts end up forcing people into jail; how to change the paradigm of criminal justice spending and turn it towards investment in neighborhoods, jobs and community infrastructure; how to expand community support and community intervention tools; and how to build on the improvements in policing that were driven by the Community Safety Act in order to keep bettering how police can be held accountable for their actions and how police interact with our communities.

Reforming what happens pre- and post-trial: ending cash bail and enacting real sentencing reform

Our City’s prisons, most famously Riker’s Island, are packed with persons who haven’t even been convicted for a crime: thousands are in jail awaiting a trial and stuck there because they can’t post bail. While the Brooklyn and Manhattan District Attorney’s voluntarily stopped asking for bail in misdemeanor cases, that’s not the law and there’s no guarantee that practice continues. Jail time before conviction costs our city upwards of $100 million a year. The commercial bail industry, which is alive and well even though arrests are falling and DA’s offices are pushing for less bail, costs persons who are jailed and their families tens of millions of dollars each year in non-refundable costs--that leaves a massive criminal justice burden in the form of financial debt for families.

Pre-trial practices aren’t the only problem. Judges are often forced to sentence persons convicted of non-violent crimes, such as low-level misdemeanors, to jail for no other reason than certain misdemeanors still leave judges no choice: no chance to use alternatives to jail or let judges exercise discretion based on a person’s lack of criminal record, how jail time will impact family members, or how jail time will affect that person’s community. Moreover, some misdemeanors that carry a potential sentence for up to one year in prison, regardless of whether a judge actually sentences a person to a full year, automatically trigger the involvement of the federal government if that person being sentenced is an immigrant: under federal law, an immigrant convicted of select crimes that are classified by the state as misdemeanors but carry a possible sentence of one year in prison can lead to deportation. This has hurt so many families and oftentimes leads to adults being deported even though they were convicted of minor offenses as teenagers and never even served a single day in jail.

I will fight in the City and at the State level to:

  • End cash bail and for-profit commercial bail bonds for all misdemeanor offenses. Arrests for non-violent crimes should not lead to our community members paying premium for their freedom before they even get a day in court to defend themselves. And options other than cash bail and for-profit commercial bail bonds have been shown to be just as effective in achieving the one purpose for bail, which is making sure people show up to court. The more we empower our communities by removing onerous financial burdens, the better off our criminal legal system will be. I will take this fight up to Albany.

  • Push courts to use their full discretion on alternative bail. New York State already has laws on the books that don’t require cash bail for people arrested. Unfortunately, the way in which our criminal legal system has evolved over time, those options for judges are hardly ever used. I will throw my office behind all efforts across the City to push judges to use their discretion and avoid cash bail, including supporting public defenders whose offices are systematically fighting back on bail orders to prevent people from being stuck in jail even before a conviction.

  • Sentencing reform to encourage judges’ discretion and reduce the chance for immigration enforcement to use our local criminal legal system. I will push for New Yorkers to have a criminal legal system that empowers judges to consider non-incarceration means of enforcing the law, and advocate on the State level for the review and reform of maximum sentencing on low-level misdemeanors so that we reduce how often any law used by the State triggers federal immigration enforcement.

Change the paradigm: spend to build a New York for everyone--that all people can afford--and attack the root of mass incarceration

For forty years, American politicians loved one expression more than most: “tough on crime.” It was a phrase Republican presidential candidates made famous and Democrats never ended. And what we ended up with was the highest incarceration rates in the world, with people of more color bearing the absolute brunt of an over-policing political movement, and no real plan for what happens when “punishment” ends for those who were incarcerated or for their loved ones. Now, there’s a wave of reforms to finally stem the tide of the mass incarceration hysteria that gripped national politics since the late 1960s and “tough on crime” began.

However, breaking away from “tough on crime” and ending mass incarceration is only the first step to flipping how we prioritize “criminal justice reform” in society. I’ve always championed programs that are designed to help local communities grow and create opportunities for affordable housing, for local jobs, for programs meant to improve educational opportunities for our community members, and for youth employment--because investing in people is the best way to stem what leads to crime and contact with the criminal legal system.

As Public Advocate, I will seek to reframe what criminal legal spending means:

  • Launch initiatives designed to build “community infrastructure”. Every one of the major crises we face today--affordability, employment, healthcare, transportation, etc.--plays into the larger narrative of what we need to look at as far as the criminal legal system. When people have jobs, when they can move about their city on quality transportation, when they have homes to live in that are actually affordable, when they have access to quality education, that’s when people have the kinds of communities that stem the tide of crime before crime happens. That’s what we owe our community members. And that is what we should look to spend taxpayer dollars on as we continue to reduce how many persons are incarcerated. I will use my office to undertake a careful examination of how to strengthen our communities with taxpayer funds instead of increasing funding for a criminal legal system that is incarcerating fewer and fewer persons.

  • Increase summer youth employment program funding to employ more than 100,000 youth each summer. I have always believed that one of the best things we can do as a City to help our youth is making sure they have employment opportunities. If we invest in youth employment, we’ll continue to see dividends for decades with a new generation that is better able and equipped to contribute as adults, and we’ll see less interaction between youth and police when it’s unnecessary.

    For the past few years, the City has grown its summer youth employment programs, and that must be continued. When the City hit 70,000 youths employed two summers ago, it was a milestone of City-backed services for 14-24 year olds who need employment and often lack the chance for a job based on demographics and geography. The City’s program takes into account high unemployment rates for youth of more color and the need increase job skills and training so that group can be more competitive in the job market. I will push for that number to hit 100,000 in the coming years.

Empowering communities against gun violence

In the City Council, I held lead the charge to implement New York City’s crisis management system, an initiative to end gun violence through partnerships with local human and social service providers, funded by the City Council and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and supported by of the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence. Our crisis management system is based on the “Cure Violence” program seen in other cities--gun violence is no longer just looked at “after-the-fact,” when it has already happened and when police are forced to get involved; rather, it’s looked at as something solvable beforehand through an integrated approach of community intervention and service provision. Cure Violence draws on the richness of the experiences of our fellow community members who have come back from being a part of violence themselves, and links youth and young adults with a variety of programs such as job training and mental health services, to attack the precursors to gun violence.

New York City built on the Cure Violence model by creating the Crisis Management System. To date, the Crisis Management System supports the 17 precincts with the highest violent crime numbers in the City. But, in terms of the size of our City and how many people are still affected by gun violence and the threat of gun violence, that’s hardly enough.

I will fight for the City to:

  • Expand the crisis management system and increase its funding. Right now, New York City has invested $22.5 million into the crisis management system to support a diverse, collaborative effort of leading social services providers to implement the Cure Violence model across the 17 precincts in the program. We need more than that, and I will push to dramatically increase the amount of funding and the number of precincts that are covered.

  • Renew the contracts that support the crisis management system. When the City issued its most recent solicitation for service providers to support the program, those contracts were scheduled to end this year. As a sponsor of and believer in this program, I will make sure our City continues to partner with organizations dedicated to reducing gun violence and gives them the means to do so.

Build on our successes with Community Safety Act and continue to improve police-community relations

The Community Safety Act was always just the start of how to end discriminatory policing practices and rebuild trust between police and our communities. Since the Act’s enactment, reported stop-question-and-frisk usage dropped to 12,000 in 2016 (a decline of about 98 percent from 2011 levels), a little under 11,000 in 2017, and around 12,000 in 2018. In parallel to the dramatic reduction in a practice that targeted people of more color, the City has had its lowest numbers of homicides since the 1950s. Even parts of the country’s conservative establishment acknowledge we were right and that the reforms in the Community Safety Act never interrupted the drop in crime in our City.

Some of the key elements of the Community Safety Act that made this possible are the cornerstones behind the next steps we take in police reform: the Inspector General’s Office in the NYPD; the enactment of the Right to Know Act to make sure community members know who it is policing their streets and their rights when it comes to police searches; and the City’s body-worn camera program.

  • The Inspector General’s Office began to examine certain policing practices, exposing problems such as the NYPD’s failure to adequately investigate police sexual violence and the continued use of chokeholds by officers in spite of the 20+-year ban on their use. Over the past several years, the Inspector General has also made concrete recommendations on how policing practices can be generally improved.   

  • The Right to Know Act, which went into effect just this past October, requires officers to identify themselves and the reason for an encounter in certain situations, including providing a business card that contains the officer’s  name, rank and command.

As good as these reforms are, we have much more to do. I will fight for:

  • Passage of the Police-Stat Act in New York State. The Police-Stat Act is another key companion to the Community Safety Act and Right to Know Act that still needs enactment. New York State has no comprehensive data collection and reporting requirements on police actions, which means we are all too often blind to the reality of the kinds of interactions, such as low-level enforcement, that take place between police and our communities that hurt members of our communities and target people of more color unfairly. And low-level enforcement encounters are exactly what the federal monitor believes the NYPD is using to facilitate under-reporting on stop-question-and-frisk.

    Now that we have a Democratic majority in both the State Assembly and Senate, I will be a leading voice to push those bodies to pass the Police-Stat Act.

  • Passage of the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA). Wrapped up into the fight for better, fairer and more just policing over the past few decades is the incredible amount of damage done to communities through marijuana-offense enforcement against people of more color, specifically the disproportionately high-numbers of those persons fined and imprisoned for marijuana-related misdemeanors. Reducing stop-question-and-frisks, forcing the NYPD to reveal low level encounters, and recent reforms to the marijuana arrest policies of the NYPD in the past year have all made a difference in reducing the total number of persons of more color who are penalized for any contact with marijuana, but that didn’t solve the underlying problem: two generations of persons of more color have been devastated by a criminal legal system that doesn’t care if someone has committed a non-violent offense when marijuana is involved.

    As Public Advocate, I will give my full backing to the “Marijuana: Equity. Justice. Reinvestment” campaign and fight for the passage of the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) in Albany. MRTA will remove marijuana and marijuana products from the Controlled Substances Act and decriminalize adult possession, purchase, ingestion, smoking and even growing of marijuana while also limiting charges against youths to infractions without incarceration. Moreover, the MRTA will create a process for past injustices to be rectified, creating a process for reclassify marijuana-related convictions and changing the sentences of anyone incarcerated for a marijuana-related offense.

  • Repeal 50-a. Under the Mayor, the City uses Section 50-a of New York State’s Civil Rights Law to shield the NYPD from releasing the records of police officers when misconduct is alleged. The City has invoked 50-a time and again to prevent Freedom of Information requests and keep secret whether officers have red flags on their records that the public deserves to known about. Families whose loved ones have been injured or killed by police are left to wonder why their government cares more about shielding a police officer’s personnel record from the public than being as transparent and forthcoming as possible to try and fix grievous wrongs.

This problem doesn’t apply just to the NYPD; 50-a is a statewide law and it shields police across the entire state from engaging the public with the utmost transparency. It leaves families of victims of police misconduct in the dark, shut out by their government instead of being served.

We shouldn’t have laws that specifically enable the government to cover-up misconduct by public servants, least of all by those sworn to protect. I’ll fight to repeal 50-a in its entirety.  

  • Spotlight on the highest number of CCRBs by precinct. Just like the worst landlord lists that the Public Advocate’s office currently prints, I will use my office to call attention to the ten precincts with the highest number of complaints against officers filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) annually. The Public Advocate’s office will be a partner with the CCRB to call attention to the worst complaints filed by members of our community and work with the NYPD to both hold officers accountable and reduce the harm caused. As Public Advocate, I will open satellite offices in those boroughs with the highest number of complaints to give members of our community a more local place to go for help related to these precincts and to give CCRB office space outside of Manhattan to send staff to meet directly with community members in their borough.

  • Make NYPD disciplinary practices fair, inclusive and effective. The NYPD must improve every aspect of how it handles internal discipline cases surrounding use of excessive force by police officers, sexual misconduct by police officers, and lying in an official capacity. Over the past two years, investigative reporting has shown that there has been systemic failure to hold accountable those officers who use excessive force, kill unjustly, engage in sexual misconduct, and lie in their official capacities. Adding to this crisis is the refusal of the NYPD to communicate with police abuse survivors and families of those whose loved ones have been killed. Routinely, the NYPD fails to provide information about disciplinary proceedings of officers who harmed them. Given the years-long failures and significant inaction and lack of communication by the NYPD in high profile cases like Eric Garner and Delrawn Small, New Yorkers have little faith that the NYPD will conduct a fair, thorough, speedy or transparent investigation resulting in meaningful discipline when officers harm members of the public.

    As Public Advocate, I will convene an advisory committee of survivors of police abuse, families of those killed by police and police accountability advocates to help develop and implement a plan that will end the NYPD’s systemic failure to hold abusive officers accountable. The NYPD’s disciplinary practices must be made fair, inclusive and effective for all parties involved.

  • Increased staffing and funding of Inspector General’s office. Since the office kicked off in 2014, it has had the chance to look further into policing matters than any other office before it, and it now has a city with a tremendous amount of raw data on policing practice in the form of body worn camera video. The office should have as much staffing as it needs to make sure it can effectively act as the watchdog we envisioned when the Community Safety Act was passed and continue to drill down into how police are policing and how we can improve those practices.

  • Greater transparency in data released by the Police Department. The NYPD has troves of data it isn’t doing a good job releasing to the public, such as disaggregated data on marijuana arrests and where/how those complaints originate and compliance with use of force data reporting along with ensuring internal compliance in filing use of force reports. The City also now has millions of body camera videos that aren’t public and no plan on how to make those videos available to the public has been discussed. And the City hasn’t made any commitment to explaining how it purchases and uses surveillance technology in and around the five boroughs.

I will use the Public Advocate’s office to get transparency from the City in every way I can: in part using the office as a bully pulpit to call out when this data hasn’t been released; in part using the office’s legislative powers with the City Council to push for the passage of the POST Act, which would require the release of information relating to surveillance technology and privacy protections for New Yorkers; and in part to sue, if all else fails, to represent New Yorkers against unjust and unfair practices of keeping data from the public’s view.