Sharon Salaam Credit: Bill Moore photo

Last week, the New York State legislative session wrapped with key criminal justice bills left out.

Electeds and advocates in the city had rallied huge support for The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act and Clean Slate Act, which are dead in the water for the time being.

Rebecca Brown, director of policy at the Innocence Project, said they were waiting with “bated breaths” last Friday when the legislative session came to a close. Brown explained that the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act is about getting back into court to prove one’s innocence. The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act passed in the state assembly. However it was not approved in the senate.

Prior to a few years ago, the law stated that if you plead guilty and didn’t have DNA evidence, then you had no access to the courts to appeal and clear your name later on. The bill changes that law and allows convicted individuals to petition the court if DNA evidence emerges in their cases. It specifically relates to “the requirements of discovery” in their court case, or what the prosecution has to show to the defense. Brown said that in these cases where DNA isn’t available, which is the “lion’s share of wrongful conviction claims,” people can introduce evidence that can include recantations, other witnesses who came forward after the fact, and videotape.

It also establishes a right to counsel or an attorney for those with wrongful conviction claims. Many times people are filing by themselves without legal help, said Brown.

“Before 2019, people were not getting information when they were pleading guilty,” said Brown. “They were just making uninformed plea decisions, thinking ‘even if I’m innocent I’m facing 40 years if I go to trial or I could take this deal for 10 years now.’”

Brown said in about 98% of cases in New York State the outcome is a plea agreement and not trial. She believes that it’s grossly underreported how often innocent people are taking plea agreements or giving false confessions. She said at the time it seems like the “rational choice” for people in dire situations just wanting to avoid Rikers Island.

The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) reported, based on data from exonerations in the U.S. going back to 1989, that “nearly three quarters of those false confessions were in homicide cases.” The NRE surmises that “innocent suspects” who have the right to remain silent often confess because they are “terrified and confused and exhausted; because they are deceived or tricked; because they don’t understand what they are doing; because they feel hopeless and helpless and isolated.”

In 2017, the NRE also reported that Black Americans are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than whites. “It’s no secret that certain communities, mainly Black and Brown ones, are overpoliced and so you’re going to see a disproportionate number of Black and Brown people fighting with claims of innocence,” said Brown. “This is very much a racial justice issue.”

The Wrongful Convictions bill is sponsored by Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Dan Quart.

“New York is the wrongful convictions capital of the United States—robbing the innocent of their freedom, allowing the guilty to go free and wasting vital resources. I’m glad the Assembly passed our important legislation this year and look forward to continuing to make the case to my colleagues next year,” said Myrie in a statement.

Myrie also sponsored and championed the Clean Slate Act, S1553C/A6399B, which automatically seals certain conviction records and addresses the systemic barriers people with old conviction records face in regards to getting jobs, housing and education. The bill passed in the senate, but not the assembly.

“Despite overwhelming support, and passage of the bill in the State Senate earlier this week, the Assembly failed to bring Clean Slate to the floor for a vote before the legislative session ended today. 2.3 million New Yorkers and their families will continue to face barriers to good jobs, safe and secure housing, and educational opportunities,” said the Clean Slate NY coalition in a statement.

“We are outraged and heartbroken, but undaunted. All New Yorkers deserve a fair chance to provide for our families and fully contribute to our shared communities. This fight is not over. We are grateful to our partners, legislative sponsors, and everyone who helped lead this critical effort. We demand the legislature pass Clean Slate on the first day it reconvenes—and we know that we will win. Clean Slate can’t wait,” continued the coalition.

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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