March 15, 2018

Assembly's SFY 2018-19 Budget Includes Critical Criminal Justice Reform Legislation and Funding

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Codes Committee Chair Joseph Lentol today announced the Assembly's SFY 2018-19 Budget includes critical funding for criminal justice reforms and public safety measures.

"The Assembly Majority recognizes that our criminal justice system needs fundamental changes to ensure each and every New Yorker is treated fairly," said Speaker Heastie. "Our budget reflects that need while ensuring public safety remains a top priority."

"When navigating our criminal justice system, New Yorkers should be confident that they will be treated equitably, regardless of their socioeconomic status," said Assemblymember Lentol, chair of the Codes Committee. "This spending plan helps us take the necessary steps towards achieving that goal."

The Assembly's proposed budget includes measures to bring greater economic fairness to our criminal justice system, increase transparency in court and grand jury proceedings, limit the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons, prohibit discriminatory practices, promote rehabilitation, establish the Office of Special Investigation, collect better data to evaluate criminal justice policies, and enact the Child Victims Act.

Economic Fairness

Economic barriers should not determine whether a person, who has only been accused of certain offenses but not convicted, is stuck sitting in jail. The Assembly's budget proposal will reform our bail process and remove these barriers to create a more equitable bail process. Specifically, the proposal would eliminate cash bail in most instances for persons charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies and require the court to impose the least restrictive alternative that would reasonably assure the defendant's return to court. The Assembly's proposed budget includes $5 million in additional funding to support the implementation of the bail reform provisions.

Additionally, the spending plan would ease certain restrictions in current law on the activities of charitable bail organizations. These organizations provide a possible release option often coupled with social services and charitable aid - that can assist lower income individuals and help assure their attendance in court as their cases proceed. Under the plan, charitable bail organizations would be authorized to post bail of up to $10,000, and would no longer be limited to operating in only one county.

The proposal would also allow the court to waive certain surcharges and fees for defendants under the age of 21 where such surcharges or fees impose an undue hardship or prevent successful reintegration, or where waiver would be in the interests of justice.

Fairness and Transparency in Court Processing and Grand Jury Proceedings

The spending plan would also reform New York's criminal discovery laws and provide for early and more robust exchange of information in criminal prosecutions. This measure would implement many recommendations by expert panels and bar groups in New York and reflects the broader, expedited discovery of evidence approach that has long existed in many states throughout the nation. The plan would preserve current law that allows a protective order to be obtained to prohibit, condition or limit disclosure of evidence when there is a belief that sensitive information could be used to threaten or intimidate a witness .

Another component of the budget would enact a reform of the speedy trial provision of New York's Criminal Procedure Law. This would encourage judges to inquire as to whether the prosecution is, in fact, ready for trial when the prosecution claims readiness. Under New York's statutory speedy trial rules, the prosecution must generally be "ready for trial" within six months for a felony charge and 90 days for a misdemeanor charge. The proposal, known as "Kalief's Law," is named after Kalief Browder who was imprisoned for nearly three years at New York City's Rikers Island jail awaiting trial in a case that ultimately was dismissed. Sadly, Kalief Browder later committed suicide.

The Assembly's budget also includes a measure to increase transparency in grand jury proceedings when a court determines disclosure of certain information is in the public interest. The proposal would allow the court to release certain grand jury information in cases where a felony indictment is not returned by the grand jury. The court would be required to afford the prosecutor or any other relevant persons the opportunity to be heard, consider several factors in determining whether or not disclosure is appropriate and redact personally identifying information.

Additionally, the plan would implement a long-overdue, common sense change: it would allow the judge to be present in the grand jury room, and thus be available to help assure the fairness of these closed-door proceedings.

Solitary Confinement Reform

The overuse of solitary confinement is both dehumanizing and ineffective while failing to meet our primary objective of keeping people safe. Studies show that states that have reduced their use of this form of punishment have seen sharp decreases in prison violence. By some estimates, more than 9 percent of New York's prison population is in solitary confinement on any given day, more than double the national average.

The Assembly's budget proposal would prohibit placement in segregated confinement of inmates who are 21 years of age or younger, 55 years of age or older, mentally, physically or intellectually disabled, pregnant, in the first 8 weeks of post-partum recovery, or in a jail or prison newborn nursery program. For all other inmates, the bill would enact strict limits on the use and duration of solitary confinement.

Rehabilitation and Prevention

Among other measures proposed in the Assembly's budget are proposals designed to end certain unfair and discriminatory practices. One component would prohibit law enforcement officers from using racial or ethnic profiling during the performance of duties. Under the plan, law enforcement agencies would be required to adopt written policies prohibiting racial and ethnic profiling, develop procedures for complaints and corrective action, and require the collection and reporting of data about motor vehicle and pedestrian stops by agency personnel. Additionally, it would empower the Attorney General and individuals who have experienced racial or ethnic profiling to seek a court order banning these practices and, where appropriate, to seek an award of monetary damages against a law enforcement entity that engages in racial or ethnic profiling.

The spending plan also includes language that would provide for the automatic sealing of the records of certain low-level convictions for possession of marijuana and prohibit the waiver of such sealing as part of a plea agreement in order to avoid the unfair stigma of a life-long criminal record.

The Assembly's budget would also expand the availability of the judicial diversion for treatment to include additional types of charges, such as conspiracy in the fourth or third degree, auto stripping, and certain identity theft crimes. Individuals charged with these offenses are sometimes addicted to drugs or alcohol and commit these crimes to help raise money to support a drug or alcohol habit. This proposal would allow courts to order such individuals to treatment and upon successful completion, dismiss the criminal case.

In an effort to help promote rehabilitation and prevent recidivism, the Assembly's spending includes a proposal to "Ban the Box" to delay a potential employer's inquiry about an applicant's criminal history record. Interviews would proceed based on other factors and the potential employer could inquire about criminal history after making a conditional offer of employment. The measure does not apply when a federal or state criminal background check is required or permitted by law.

Special Prosecutor

To help instill greater confidence in our criminal justice system, the Assembly's budget would establish an Office of Special Investigation within the offices of the New York State Attorney General to investigate when a civilian dies either in law enforcement custody or after an encounter with a law enforcement officer. District attorneys and the police regularly work closely together in investigating criminal conduct. The new office would provide for independent investigations and independent prosecutions, where warranted, in such cases when police conduct is under review as a means to address what otherwise may be a significant conflict of interest.

The proposal would also require the court to disclose the charges and the legal instructions submitted to the grand jury in such cases when there was grand jury consideration but no indictment. The court would provide the prosecutor an opportunity to be heard on the matter and the court would redact personal identifying information before disclosure.

Collecting Better Data to Evaluate Criminal Justice Policies

The Assembly's budget also includes the STAT Act, which would provide greater transparency by collecting and publically reporting critical policing data from across the state. Under the plan, the chief administrator of the courts would be required to compile data on misdemeanor offenses and violations, broken down by county, and share the information with the legislature and the public. These reports would provide metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of existing criminal justice policies. The information would include:

The plan would also require the chief of every police department, every county sheriff and the superintendent of state police to promptly report to the Division of Criminal Justice Services all arrest related deaths. The data required to be reported to DCJS would include:

The Assembly's proposed budget also restores $2.83 million in Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF) support for civil and criminal legal services grants. The budget would also provide a total of $8.8 million to support various legislative restorations, including: