NYC-- Making The Criminal Justice System Work Fairly

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Melissa Mark-Viverito 
[Op-Ed]

Last year, an average of 174 individuals entered our city’s jails every day. That amounts to over 63,000 detainees over the course of a year.   

The overwhelming majority of these people – mostly young men of color - are there because they are too poor to afford bail. These individuals are hidden in impenetrable facilities, their plight too often overlooked. And they have not been convicted of any crime.

This is unacceptable. My colleagues and I on the New York City Council are dedicated to making New York a more equitable and just place to live for everyone, regardless of their financial means.

That is why we have fought so hard to reform our criminal justice system. We’ve already made great progress in New York City.  

This spring, we passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA), a package of legislation which reduces the penalties for low-level non-violent arrests. By our estimation the bills mean 10,000 less people a year will get a criminal record and will lead to 50,000 fewer warrants.  As a result of the CJRA, fewer people will get criminal records, fewer people will end up with warrants and fewer people will end up in Rikers.

For a system which for too long has been inequitable, the CJRA will create a more fair and just criminal justice system while also ensuring public safety. In addition, we’ve also allocated funds to create a citywide bail fund, passed numerous pieces of legislation to ensure more transparency at Rikers, and recently created an Office of Transition Services to ensure New Yorkers who have been detained or paid their debt to society can get back on their feet. 

But we have more to do. Recently I proposed legislation that shows that even smaller reforms can make a big difference. Inmates who cannot afford to post bail may find themselves in court wearing their jail uniforms, where they face obvious discrimination, particularly in the grand jury process.

Furthermore, inmates who are sent home after their pretrial cases are dismissed or who are sentenced to time served, are released in nothing more than their jail uniforms, even in the wintertime. So bringing an inmate to court in their “street clothes” is not just about fairness in the judicial process, it’s also about treating New Yorkers with humanity. 

We can also improve the efficiency of the justice system by requiring that DOC transport inmates to all of their criminal court appearances - not just the cases for which they are in custody for. This will not only speed up case processing time, but will also prevent lengthy delays that cause inmates to miss out on receiving credit for the time they are actually in jail. 

Finally, too often the friends and family of those who are detained are living in poverty. Charging these individuals a 3% bail fee even where the defendant makes all their court appearances is a needless tax on the poor. We continue to advocate for broader reforms to create lasting change within the justice system.

The Commission I established earlier this year to examine issues related to pretrial detention and community-based jail facilities continues to work diligently towards producing a blueprint for long-term reform in our city’s jails, so that one day we may make the dream of closing Rikers a reality.  

In fact, that Commission is now soliciting public input on its work through its website, www.morejustnyc.org   

These efforts, in conjunction with the Criminal Justice Reform Act and other important legislation passed by the Council, will create a more fair criminal justice system. 

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