Tragic events over the past year have shone a light on one of our nation’s most urgent moral issues—the inequitable and ineffective state of our criminal justice system.
Too many Americans have lost faith in the essential American principle of equal justice under law because our system disproportionately harms poor people and people of color.
Last December, when I called for my office to be appointed as temporary special prosecutor in cases in which unarmed civilians die during encounters with police in New York state, I did so in large part to help restore confidence in our justice system.
New York took an important step towards a renewed public confidence when Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted my office that power in early July. However, the crisis of confidence is rooted in far more than those rare, tragic cases in which a civilian dies during an encounter with the police. Serious structural issues must be addressed if all our citizens are expected to feel that our system provides equal justice under law. Without reform, we are consigning an entire generation of young, predominantly African-American men to incarceration with little hope of a successful future.
Meaningful reform is possible—and it works.
Take, for example, our reforms of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Back in 2009, critics said those reforms would spur a crime wave. One columnist called my reform bill “the drug dealer protection act.” Six years later, crime rates are down. Recidivism is down. The prison population is shrinking. And New York taxpayers are saving millions each year on the costs of trying and imprisoning non-violent drug offenders.
The success of the Rockefeller reforms highlighted just how far we still have to go in New York. Our system still ensnares far too many young people and continues to heap punishment on offenders long after they have served their time.
At every step of the process—in encounters with police, bail and sentencing decisions and re-entry options after release—we can adopt evidence-based practices that will reduce both crime and our prison population.
For many young people, their first contact with the criminal justice system is not a police stop on the street. Instead, it’s in a classroom, where a minor disciplinary infraction (one that used to warrant a call to the principal’s office) now gets a call to local police.
In those cases in which our children do end up in the system, they should be treated as children. After the governor and Legislature failed to agree on a “Raise the Age” proposal this past session, New York remains one of only two states that automatically treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. This policy is unconscionable.
When a system treats young people this way—especially boys of color—it is no wonder the crisis of confidence endures and grows.
Restoring trust between police and the communities they serve is crucial to solving this crisis in the long run. That is why New York should follow the lead of the U.S. Department of Justice and the recommendation of the National District Attorneys Association and videotape police interviews with suspects once they are in custody.
Once they are charged, too many poor New Yorkers find themselves trapped by our unjust bail system. Unable to pay for bail, they languish in Rikers Island or other jails while they await trial, regardless of guilt.
Many interesting bail reform proposals are circulating in both the city and the state. My friends in government must move forward on those reforms.
Finally, once formerly incarcerated New Yorkers have paid their debts to society, they must be given the chance to re-enter society as productive, responsible citizens. Connecting them to jobs, housing and education is critical to driving down recidivism. My office is working with both employers and colleges to ensure New Yorkers who have earned a second chance can get one.
In all the years I have worked to reform our criminal justice system, I have never been as hopeful as I am today that we can finally tackle the big structural challenges.
The political climate is ripe for reform. It is time for New York to lead.
Eric T. Schneiderman is the attorney general of the state of New York.