Criminal Justice Reform in New York | 2024 NYS Legislative Agenda

Enact the Communities Not Cages Bill Package

The City Bar supports enactment of the Communities Not Cages suite of bills. These three sentencing reform bills are a long overdue overhaul of the most pernicious aspects of New York’s sentencing laws. The Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act (A.2036-A AM Meeks / S.6471 Sen. Myrie) allows judges to consider the individual before them in sentencing rather than requiring them to sentence people to predetermined sentences and reduces the potential for coercive pleas. Importantly, the bill establishes rehabilitation and successful reentry into the community as the purpose of sentencing, and it directs judges to impose the “minimum sentence necessary” to achieve those goals. Judges would be able to consider sentences that would be most effective in addressing the individual’s behavior and the unique circumstances of the offense and enable more people to remain with their families and communities. Notably, the bill does not change New York’s maximum allowable sentences, and judges could continue to impose long sentences in instances where they deem them appropriate. The Second Look Act (A.531 AM Walker / S.321 Sen. Salazar) would enable those currently incarcerated with long sentences to petition judges for reduced sentences. Under present New York law, there is almost no process for judges to reduce an incarcerated individual’s sentence—no matter how much evidence there is that serving the remainder of that sentence would be fruitless for both the individual and the state. By providing an outlet by which indicators of rehabilitation could justify release, the Act would incentivize good behavior and participation in rehabilitative programming while ensuring that individuals do not languish in prisons for long sentences that do not benefit community safety. The Earned Time Act (A.1128 AM Kelles / S.774 Sen. Cooney) would enable those serving long sentences to earn credit to reduce their sentences by complying with prison rules and by participating in treatment, education, vocational training, and work programs. Incentivizing individuals to use in-prison programs that focus on self-improvement encourages rehabilitation. It will also help reduce recidivism rates and reduce New York’s correctional costs.

As New York was the first state to enact harsh mandatory sentencing laws and provided other states a blueprint to do so, it is fitting for the state to lead the country in comprehensive sentencing reform that reduces mass incarceration.

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Enact the Treatment Not Jail Act

Despite the fact that large numbers of people with mental health disorders are funneled into and through the criminal justice system, the criminal legal system is not structured to assist people with significant mental health problems and address their needs. A recent study found that half of all people incarcerated in New York City jails had a mental illness; the State prison system is similar, with more than 14,000 incarcerated in State prisons who suffer from mental illnesses. The Treatment Not Jail Act (A.1263-B AM Forrest / S.1976-B Sen. Ramos) would help ensure that people who come into contact with the criminal justice system receive appropriate therapeutic treatments for various functional impairments, including mental health disorders and substance use disorder by expanding diversion courts in several ways. The Treatment Not Jail Act would create a new norm to address mental health disorders in a manner that is humane, just, and will also increase public safety by addressing some of the pressures that cause people to commit crimes.

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Support For the New York Elder Parole Bill

Nearly 1 in 5 incarcerated people under the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s (DOCCS) custody is serving a life or virtual life sentence (with a maximum sentence of 50 years or more) – a total of over 9,000 people. Of this group, over 1,200 are serving a sentence of life without parole or a virtual life without parole sentence (a minimum term of 50 years or more) and are effectively sentenced to die in prison without any individualized review or public safety assessment. Even as the total DOCCS’ population has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2000, the number of older people in prison has more than doubled during the same time period as a result of these long sentences. There are now over 10,000 people aged 50 and older and over 5,700 people age 55 and older in DOCCS’ custody. They represent more than 20 percent of all people in New York’s prisons. Older incarcerated people often have serious health problems and the cost of incarcerating them is conservatively estimated to be $1 billion per year.

Years of evidence, including decades of DOCCS’ own data, shows that people age out of crime, and that older people pose the lowest risk of recidivism when released. The Elder Parole bill (A.2035 AM Davila) / S.2423 Sen. Hoylman-Sigal) would permit the Board of Parole to evaluate all incarcerated people over the age of 55 who have served at least 15 years in prison for possible parole release. It does not mandate release, but allows the Board to make an individualized public safety assessment to determine whether an individual is safe to be released to parole supervision even if he or she has not completed the court-imposed minimum term. We urge the Legislature to pass this sensible reform that allows the parole board to consider release for this population, which would permit consideration of an individual’s own rehabilitative process, changing norms around sentencing, and an acknowledgement of the unnecessary harshness of imprisoning people well past the age where they are likely to commit further crimes.

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No Further Rollbacks to Critical Criminal Justice Reforms in New York

The City Bar urges Governor Hochul and members of the Legislature to refrain from further rollbacks to critical criminal justice reforms enacted in recent years. These reforms – and bail reform in particular – have been falsely vilified in recent years as the source of increases in crime nationwide that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our elected leaders should take seriously the public’s concerns about crime and safety. However, blaming the wrong cause means we ignore the right solutions. Rolling back meaningful criminal justice reforms is not the right solution.

We are living through a period of heated public discourse about the impact of criminal justice reform on community safety and stability. As lawyers committed to making our criminal legal system more just for all New Yorkers, we are disturbed by a lawlessness narrative that erroneously blames reforms for increases in crime rates that are being seen across the country in jurisdictions without similar laws. This narrative presents a false choice between community safety and criminal justice reform. We call on our elected officials to oppose rushed and ineffective rollbacks to criminal justice reform, and instead to use data, facts and transparency to rebut misinformation suggesting that such reforms have led to the release of dangerous people into the community and increased crime.

To reach their full potential, existing criminal justice reforms must be fully funded and supported by the State. Instead of returning to an era of massive over-incarceration of people at Rikers Island for minor offenses, the Legislature should focus on funding desperately needed investments in our communities, such as mental health treatment, job training, violence intervention programs, and pretrial services. Such programs have proven far more effective at preventing crime than incarceration. We urge evidence-based investment in preventive support, pretrial programming and research to ensure that these statutes’ positive impacts can be maximized and assessed, and data disseminated transparently to all New Yorkers. The pandemic only heightened the need for this investment, and we support efforts to increase those investments in the budget. Indeed, adequate investments in services are a necessary precondition for a number of the reforms contemplated.