Criminal Justice Reformers Have a Package of Bills They Want to See New York State Enact

A new legislative session begins in Albany on Monday. How will lawmakers react to the demands of protesters who have grown bolder in the wake of George Floyd's death?

Kiara Thomas Jul 15, 2020

More than 300 people marched from Union Square to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office on Tuesday to call for lawmakers to demolish racism in policing, jails, prisons and courts. 

‘I’m angry just simply walking down the street, criminalized for my existence.’

“We are here to expose the state violence that is still happening in communities of color,” said Marvin Mayfield, an organizer at the Center for Community Alternatives. “We must remember that state violence doesn’t stop when a person is convicted. In many cases, it is just the beginning of the brutality of the jails and the prisons in New York State.”

Marchers demanded lawmakers pass a package of bills that would reduce sentences for aging detainees, encourage rehabilitation alternatives, decriminalize loitering for prostitution, prevent law enforcement from arresting people for civic violations while they are in, going or leaving court, and restrict the use of solitary confinement to 15 days.

“Because of what I saw happen to people — the abuses that not only happened to me but other people — I promised myself that if I ever got out of there alive, I would devote and commit myself to making the system better,” said Victor Pate, who considers advocating for prison reform a form of therapy after enduring intermittent solitary confinement while incarcerated in the 1970s and ’80s. 

Pate is now an organizer for the #HALTsolitary campaign and was one of many formerly incarcerated individuals who planned and led the march to Cuomo’s office. Many of the incarcerated leaders said that the person they were when they were convicted is not who they are today.

“It didn’t take me 38 years to transform my life. It doesn’t take anyone that long,” said Jose Saldaña, the director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign who spent 38 years behind bars. 

The protest is part of a groundswell of activism calling for criminal justice reform, following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man suffocated to death by Minneapolis police in May. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD budget in June, after protesters pressured the City Council to reinvest funds into community programs and established an encampment at City Hall. Activists, however, accuse the mayor and councilmembers of simply shifting numbers around to appear as if they are defunding the department while doing little curb the over-policing that targets Black, brown and queer communities.

“I’m angry just simply walking down the street, criminalized for my existence,” TS Candii, the founder of Black Trans Nation, who is calling for a repeal of the “walking while trans” ban that would amend the state’s loitering and prostitution laws. 

Speakers at the march also called attention to the lack of internal discipline within law enforcement agencies, others pointed to the harassment experienced in immigrant communities at the hands of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. 

“When I was 18 years old, my mother was deported back to Peru,” said Angel Reyes, of the nonprofit Rural and Migrant Ministry. “She was driving without a license. She was stopped on Long Island by Nassau County Police and the same day they called ICE on her. There’s no difference — police, ICE. It’s just one system.” 

Reyes added that he hasn’t seen his mother in 10 years. 

The legislative session in Albany resumes on July 20 and organizers have vowed to keep up the pressure. Among the bills they hope lawmakers will adapt: the Elder Parole bill, the Fair and Timely Parole Act, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, the Protect our Courts Act and a repeal of the state laws loitering and prostitution statutes used to target queer and trans people. 

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