Assemblymember Latrice Walker at a rally to keep bail reform in the state budget with no rollbacks Credit: Contributed

Hoards of advocates and electeds have been rallying to keep hard won criminal justice provisions in the final budget as the due date draws closer. So far Gov. Kathy Hochul and Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin have caught major flak for shoehorning “targeted changes” into the budgeting process.

The final state budget is due this Friday, April 1, after a three-way negotiation between the Senate, governor, and Assembly concludes. Many lawmakers oppose Hochul’s plans for the budget, calling it a disingenuous and regressive move that harkens back to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s controlling tactics.

Assemblymember Latrice Walker in Brooklyn went so far as to go on a hunger strike until Friday’s deadline. Walker said that her fellow assembly members have been very supportive in meetings.
“I do not believe that there is any empirical data that supports why these changes are needed,” said Walker about the state budget. “The evidence has at best been anecdotal and political, and I believe it is important for us to put people over politics. So in that regard I have taken the stance to go on a hunger strike in protest.”

Sochie Nnaemeka, Working Families Party N.Y. State director, said that the budget process has been used as a tactic to shove in non-financial fiscal items that may not gain popular support of the legislature and therefore holding other key priorities and resources for communities hostage. She said that essentially civil rights and criminal justice bills are being rolled back without any public input as it would have in the regular legislative process.

“There is actually popular, majority support for movement towards a more equal justice system. There’s a movement away from police just being the answer to lots of common social ills,” said Nnaemeka. “The governor by moving in this direction would be answering to a vocal minority, often suburbanites who are moved by clickbait and sensationalist headlines that paint our communities as wartorn, and our neighbors and young people as unruly and unlawful.”

On March 14, the Senate Democratic Majority released their robust one-house budget resolution that was praised for focusing on working people and families, climate change, property tax relief, the suspension of the state’s taxes on gas, mental health services and community violence prevention efforts, childcare, and education. It was pretty widely supported as a solid base for the state budget.

However, on March 23, Hochul and Benjamin published an op-ed in the Daily News claiming that their “10 point plan” makes “targeted changes” to New York’s laws. Namely, rolling back bail reforms and Raise the Age.
Raise the Age started in 2017. The state raised the age a kid could be prosecuted to 18 years old and by 2019 they stopped automatically prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Nnaemeka said studies showed that Black and Brown youth were usually the ones targeted, jailed, and tried as adults.

The Bail Reform bill, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges, was passed by the state legislature also in 2019 and enacted in January 2020. It requires judges to consider a person’s ability to pay in cases where bail is set. The aim of the bill was to cut down on unnecessary pretrial incarceration that disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities.

In a recent Siena College Research Institute poll, most people “believe” that the bail reform law is bad and linked to an increase in crime, though there hasn’t been statistics to support that assumption. “This poll is clear and convincing evidence that New Yorkers have been utterly misled about bail reform. All available data is clear that bail reform did not cause a rise in crime,” said Marvin Mayfield, director of organizing at Center for Community Alternatives.

Another measure that’s gained wide support to be in the state budget is the Clean Slate Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Catalina Cruz.

The act calls for the end of job, housing, and education discrimination against people with conviction records, which Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams had supported. Cruz said that it’s important to not conflate the criminal justice reforms being argued over with the bill. The bill deals with people who have already been through the justice system, she said. “The most important thing to understand is that this is an economic development bill,” said Cruz. “They’ve already paid their dues to society and I am in conversation with my colleagues and leadership in hopes that it’s in the budget and that we have a proposal that really allows folks to move forward with their lives.”

Outside of criminal justice and public safety, politicians are heavily advocating for things such as childcare, affordable housing, mental health, climate change provisions, and Coverage For All, which adds a healthcare safety net for undocumented in the city and state.

Cruz said she is also working to ensure essential workers and small businesses are included in the budget.

“Childcare is huge,” said Nnaemeka, “if we have the opportunity to really invest in accessible, affordable, high quality child care across the state.”

Nnaemeka criticized Hochul’s housing and climate resiliency plans as falling far too short of what is needed.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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