City Bar Issues Report and Announces Task Force on Mass Incarceration

Citing a “critical juncture” and a “historic opportunity” to achieve change, the New York City Bar Association has announced the formation of a Mass Incarceration Task Force.

In a report released today, the City Bar urges federal and state leaders “to make the reduction of mass incarceration a top priority” and calls on Congress and state legislatures to repeal or reduce mandatory minimum sentencing provisions; reduce the sentences recommended by sentencing guidelines and similar laws for non-violent offenses; expand the sentencing alternatives to prison including drug programs, mental health programs and job training programs; and, in cases of incarceration, expand the availability of rehabilitative services, including counseling and educational opportunities, during and following incarceration so that individuals can successfully reenter society and avoid recidivism; eliminate or reduce financial conditions of pretrial release; provide opportunities for individuals with misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions to seal those records to prevent employment and other discrimination; and, in New York, enact legislation to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 years old.

While multiple City Bar criminal justice committees—including the Committees on Federal Courts, Criminal Justice Operations, Corrections and Community Reentry, Criminal Law, Criminal Advocacy, Criminal Courts, Civil Rights and White Collar Crime—have worked on these issues over the years and provided input on the report, this mass incarceration effort had its genesis in the City Bar’s Executive Committee. Among its members are Hon. Jed S. Rakoff, a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, who said, “Mass incarceration has had a devastating impact on the lives of far too many Americans, leaving entire families shattered and communities distraught. But there is a growing consensus that our overly punitive policies of the past can be replaced with far more positive approaches. Now is the time to translate that consensus into action.”

Zachary W. Carter, a member of the City Bar’s Executive Committee who is Corporation Counsel of New York City and a former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said, “Our sentencing policies have incarcerated far too many for too long for non-violent offenses that could be safely addressed by alternatives that better redirect these overwhelmingly black and brown young men toward productive lives in their communities.”

The City Bar’s Mass Incarceration Task Force will be comprised of defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and other experts and criminal law practitioners. The Task Force will continue to examine the issues raised in the report, guide and support the City Bar’s advocacy efforts, and bring together experts to explore how best to achieve the multifaceted actions required to reduce the world’s highest incarceration rate. With just 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. In the U.S. there are now 2.3 million people in prison, which is five times the number of people incarcerated in 1970. One in 35 African-American men and one in 88 Latino men are in prison.

As part of this effort, a dedicated section on the City Bar’s website will feature reports, legislative initiatives, data and other information relevant to the effort to reduce mass incarceration. These postings will include links to reports and statements from the City Bar during the last 20 years, when the Association has been a key voice addressing the criminal justice issues that have contributed to the rising rate of incarceration and the post-release difficulties facing those who have served time in prison.

“In 2015 we can look back at our past reports, statements and letters to public officials, including work in 1994 on mandatory minimum sentences, in 1996 on bail reform, in 2000 on the Rockefeller drug laws, in 2008 on the sealing of drug convictions, right up to work this year on raising the age of responsibility in New York and the sealing of misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions,” said City Bar President Debra L. Raskin. “If we connect the dots, it becomes clear that society’s failure to address these issues unfortunately has contributed to the mass incarceration crisis we have today.”

Executive Committee member John Savarese, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and a former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, led the effort to draft the report on behalf of the City Bar and will serve as the Task Force’s Chair. He said, “The time is ripe for public officials, members of the bar, and others who are focused on these important issues to do all they can to address the broad array of problems associated with mass incarceration. Awareness of the issue has grown in recent years and there now appears to be increasing support for reform across the political spectrum and throughout the criminal justice system. We are seeing that this is something defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges can all agree on, and we intend to mine the cumulative wisdom of our multifaceted membership to make a difference.”

In calling this a “critical juncture” and a “historic opportunity” for change, the City Bar’s report cites recent bipartisan efforts on federal reform legislation, including on the “Smarter Sentencing Act” and the “SAFE Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015,” as well as President Obama’s major speech on mass incarceration to the NAACP and modifications to the Justice Department’s charging policies. “The current levels of incarceration in the United States were not achieved overnight and are not necessarily amenable to one overarching solution,” the City Bar’s report reads. “It is clear, however, that maintaining the status quo is not an option. The problems caused by our current criminal justice policies are multifaceted and will require multi-pronged, creative solutions to correct the inequities caused by the existing regime as well as thoughtful proposals for reform of the system going forward.”

The report can be read here:

The City Bar’s Mass Incarceration web page is here