THE NYCLU’S 2022 STATE LEGISLATIVE AGENDA
“Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing…
Freedom, freedom is a hard-won thing
You’ve got to work for it, fight for it
Day and night for it
And every generation’s got to win it again.”
- From the song "Pass It On" by Millard Lampell and George Kleinsinger
Our country is in crisis. As we grapple with the challenges of COVID-19, we also face an unprecedented, nationwide assault on democracy that would eliminate abortion rights, take away the right to vote, erase truth from school curriculums, and roll back justice.
New York must not only be a bulwark against these dangerous crusades, we must be a leader that stands as a beacon for democracy, progress, and human rights.
Over the last three years, lawmakers have made our criminal legal system fairer; police departments more transparent; voting and abortion more accessible; LGBTQ, immigrant, and worker rights stronger; and much more. Overall, we have made New York more just.
We cannot take this progress for granted. There is no guarantee that New York will continue to move toward fairness, justice, and equality. Doing so takes courage. Politicians cannot bow to the backlash from those who want to pull us back to a time when progress came in dribs and drabs – if it came at all.
There are still enormous challenges facing our state, and numerous ways to make things better for all New Yorkers.
Our voting system is still not where it needs to be. Our democracy was dealt a setback in November with the defeat of two ballot initiatives that would have allowed for expanded absentee voting and same-day registration.
Our criminal legal system still imposes draconian sentences on people who sit in jail for decades as their health deteriorates, even though they pose a very low risk of reoffending. Meanwhile, people in prisons across the state work grueling jobs for pennies an hour under policies akin to modern-day slavery.
As unjust as our criminal legal system is, in some ways the state’s “child welfare system” – better described as the family regulation system – actually provides families with fewer rights than criminal defendants, and especially hurts Black and Brown New Yorkers.
Even after the largest protest movement in decades rose up in 2020, police departments across the state are still as abusive, militarized, and unaccountable as ever. We need to stop treating police as the solution to our underfunded mental health care system, our housing crisis, and school discipline.
And as the Supreme Court continues the trajectory it’s been put on by the political maneuvering of the GOP, New York’s state constitutional protection for equal rights is far from adequate.
Sitting idly by while these and many other problems fester, or worse yet, backtracking on progress, will not be an effective pitch to voters. New Yorkers are looking to the future, and so should lawmakers.
State leaders should:
- Strengthen our democracy by enacting the nation’s most comprehensive state voting rights act and modernizing voting.
- End mass incarceration by reforming New York’s parole system and sentencing laws, decriminalizing drugs, embracing harm reduction, and stopping the punishment of poverty.
- Protect human rights in jails and prisons by ending exploitative labor practices in the state correctional system, ending gender identity-based mistreatment in that system, and protecting the reproductive rights and health of pregnant incarcerated people.
- Stop abusive policing by getting police out of mental health crises, ending no-knock raids, demilitarizing police, ensuring independent discipline, and banning rogue DNA databases.
- Invest in our communities by supporting universal childcare and universal high-speed internet, and protecting gig workers and farmworkers.
- Respect personal autonomy by transforming the family regulation system, advancing the health and rights of pregnant people, and allowing medical aid in dying.
- Secure justice for students by providing solutions not suspensions, delivering comprehensive sex ed, and protecting students’ health and ensuring that every child has access to the free, secular public education they need to survive and thrive in 21st century America.
- Protect immigrant New Yorkers by creating a New York for all and guaranteeing access to representation.
- Safeguard our digital privacy by protecting our personal information online, banning biometric surveillance, and outlawing keyword and geofence warrants.
- Create a path to true equity for all by passing an Equality Amendment to the New York Constitution and studying the impacts of slavery in our state – so that we can confront and repair them.
Lawmakers have a chance to cut through the division and fear, and lead the way to a just recovery and a tomorrow that matters. They must ensure that New York leads the way.
2. STRENGTHEN OUR DEMOCRACY
A.STRENGTHEN OUR DEMOCRACY
Until recently, New York was home to some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. Over the last three years, lawmakers have made major strides toward fortifying our democracy, but much work remains. This year, we must redouble the work of ensuring that every New Yorker’s voice can be heard, that every vote really does count, and that real accountability to voters is the standard in our state.
Enact the Nation’s Most Comprehensive State Voting Rights Act
New York has an extensive history of voting rights discrimination against racial, ethnic, and language minority groups. The result is a persistent gap between white and non-white New Yorkers in who votes and who gets elected.
Access to the vote has improved in recent years, but discriminatory practices like racial gerrymandering, at-large elections that dilute minority voting strength, inconvenient polling locations, language assistance failures, off-cycle elections that depress turnout rates, and even voter intimidation remain widespread in state and local elections.
Meaningful investigation and prosecution of these voting rights violations is a daunting task – they take place across New York’s 3,400 jurisdictions that hold elections. For many New Yorkers, this all means the promise of real representation goes unfulfilled.
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York will draw from the most effective federal civil rights law in U.S. history by establishing a preclearance program that puts the burden on officials to avoid discrimination rather than on voters to find and fight discrimination. It will also require expanded language assistance for voters with limited English proficiency; enact legal protections against voter intimidation, deception, and obstruction; and create a central public repository for election and demographic data to promote transparency and evidence-based best practices for elections.
Since the federal Voting Rights Act was gutted, state officials have had to take voting rights into their own hands. It is time for New York to lead the way again. This legislation will create a toolbox to fight race-based voter suppression that is stronger and clearer than any federal or state law in America.
Two proposed amendments to our state Constitution can help bring voting in New York into the 21st century. The same-day voter registration amendment would allow lawmakers to provide that any eligible voter can register and cast a ballot at the same time. This option is currently available to voters in 20 states and Washington, D.C. The other proposed amendment would clear the way for New Yorkers to use absentee ballots without an excuse. Fewer than one-third of U.S. states still require an excuse to vote by mail, and even after several pandemic-impacted elections, New York remains among them.
Both of these proposed amendments moved through the legislative process to the November 2021 ballot. Polling shows that these election system updates are popular in New York and nationwide – but a well-funded last-minute opposition campaign stopped them from advancing. In order for New York voters to enjoy the same voting options as so many other Americans, these two amendments must first pass again, and then voters must approve them at the ballot box. We urge lawmakers to revive the amendments that will permit same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting in New York.
3. REDUCE THE SIZE AND HARM OF OUR INCARCERATION SYSTEM
A.REDUCE THE SIZE AND HARM OF OUR INCARCERATION SYSTEM
New York should end mass incarceration and over-criminalization in our state.
In the wake of the pandemic, we must take decisive action to reduce New York’s incarceration rate and honor the basic human rights of New Yorkers who remain in state prisons and local jails – where the inability to social distance puts their lives in danger, and where medical risks for older people are severe.
Last session, lawmakers passed the Less is More law, which will ensure that no one is locked up for a non-criminal technical parole violation like missing a curfew – but lawmakers must do so much more to reduce our addiction to over-incarceration. Nearly 40,000 New Yorkers continue to languish in state prisons – and more than half are Black, in a state where Black people make up just 16 percent of the population. It is past time to acknowledge that our criminal legal system targets Black and Brown people, incarcerates them at disproportionate rates, and treats them as less than human while they are behind bars. Simply shrinking our state’s incarceration footprint is not enough. Lawmakers must also protect the rights and dignity of those who are behind bars, overhaul our dated and draconian sentencing laws, and ensure that the criminal system does not punish New Yorkers for drug possession or because they’re poor.
Decriminalize Drug Possession
The war on drugs has been raging for more than half a century, with nothing more to show than the devastation it has caused in our communities, especially communities of color. Rather than taking a public health approach that addresses the negative consequences of drug use, the United States has wasted a trillion dollars on policies that have targeted and criminalized communities of color while needlessly swelling jail and prison populations.
Every 25 seconds in the U.S., someone is arrested for the mere act of possessing drugs for personal use. And even though rates of use are similar across racial lines, Black New Yorkers are more than five times as likely as their white neighbors to be arrested on a possession charge. The stigma of a drug arrest can make it harder for people to find work, secure stable housing, maintain custody of their children, or remain in the country.
We cannot arrest our way out of the public health crisis posed by opioid addiction – and we cannot fully respond to the true scale of unmet public health needs if the only thing we have to offer people who use drugs is a criminal conviction.
It’s time to end New York’s role in the failed, racist war on drugs and to instead embrace an evidence-based public health approach to drug possession and use. This year, lawmakers must pass legislation that decriminalizes all low-level drug possession. Nobody’s life should be destroyed forever because of drug laws.
Stop Punishing Poverty
Many New Yorkers do not have the cash to pay a court fee or fine that can cost hundreds of dollars in one lump sum. For these New Yorkers, missing a court payment or supervised release fee typically leads to even more fines and fees they cannot pay, which can lead to steeper consequences.
Civil rights investigations have exposed how local governments raise their revenue off the backs of poor and over-criminalized residents through a myriad of fines and fees. Yet while many places across the country have moved to reduce or eliminate what are essentially taxes on poverty, cities and towns across New York continue to rely on these regressive fines and fees as a major source of funding, in some cases totaling more than 20 percent of their annual revenue. These practices overwhelmingly target Black and Brown New Yorkers, exacerbate economic inequality, and keep people trapped in debt and in the criminal legal system.
In 2020, the Legislature acted to end driver’s license suspensions for the failure to pay fines. Lawmakers must now pass the End Predatory Court Fees Act, which would eliminate a range of mandatory surcharges tied to criminal convictions and registries, mandate fair and reasonable payment schedules for fines, and vacate existing warrants and sentences of incarceration for the failure to pay fines or fees. The Legislature must also act on separate legislation to eliminate mandatory surcharges attached to a person’s probation or parole.
Overhaul New York’s Sentencing Laws
Unnecessarily long prison sentences do not enhance community safety – instead, they destabilize communities. We must work to overhaul New York’s cruel, redundant, and counterproductive sentencing regime by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, giving people a chance to have excessive sentences reviewed for reconsideration, and funding and rewarding programs for incarcerated people that support re-entry into their communities.
Eliminate Mandatory Minimums. Mandatory minimums – or minimum sentences that judges are required to impose by law - are perhaps the biggest catalyst to New York’s epidemic of over-incarceration. Born during the 1970’s Rockefeller Drug Era, when tough-on-crime rhetoric was coupled with racist fear-mongering to justify more harsh prison sentences, mandatory minimums coerce unfair plea deals and result in unduly harsh prison sentences. Further, New York’s two and three-strike laws devastate Black, Brown, and low-income communities by requiring exorbitant or lifelong sentences, even when the initial offense was committed when the individual was young. The result is that more than 30,000 people are languishing in New York prisons. Of those incarcerated, 75 percent are Black or Brown.
The Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act would end mandatory two and three strike sentencing laws, mandatory consecutive sentencing, and plea restrictions that enable prosecutors to coerce accused persons to give up their constitutional right to trial due to fear of receiving a harsh sentence. Importantly, the bill creates a presumption against incarceration, which requires judges to consider mitigating factors and rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration before sentencing someone to prison.
Second Look at Sentencing. There are more than 30,000 people incarcerated in New York’s prisons, the majority of which are from Black and Brown communities. Thousands of those incarcerated are serving sentences of ten years or longer. While the past several decades have made clear the urgency of our mass incarceration crisis, there are no formal structures for those serving long sentences to petition courts to reduce or reconsider their sentences. The Second Look Act would afford incarcerated people the right to receive a resentencing hearing after serving either ten years or half of their sentence, where they would have the right to an attorney, and where any intervening update to the sentencing laws can be considered. Rather than solely looking at the underlying offense that led to a person’s incarceration, judges will also consider post-sentencing rehabilitation and other mitigating factors. Moreover, the bill creates a presumption that sentences should be reduced for those who were under 25 or over 55 at the time the offense was committed. This provision recognizes the unique health burden prison places on older people, and the evidence that young people continue to develop impulse control and decision-making skills into their mid-20s.
Earned Time Act. As New York enacted more punitive sentencing laws over the past decades, the state also divested from programming in prisons. Not only did this programming enable incarcerated people to earn time off of their sentences for successful participation, it also provided incarcerated people with skills and services they could use to successfully reenter society at the end of their sentence. The Earned Time Act would allow all incarcerated people to earn “good time” and “merit time” credits - time off of sentences for successful participation in offerings like rehabilitative services, educational programming, work release, or many others. Importantly, there is a presumption that each incarcerated person is entitled to earn these credits, which will incentivize prisons to offer programs if they currently do not offer them. Participation in programming is a powerful way to incentivize prosocial behavior for incarcerated people and to aid in successful rehabilitation and reentry into the community.
Reform New York’s Parole System
Parole for Older People. New York should pass the Elder Parole Bill so that older people in prison have a chance to be free. Decades of draconian prison sentences during the so-called wars on drugs and crime have increased the number of elderly people in prison. Few are brought before the parole board to be considered for release, despite the fact that most won’t reoffend.
Instead, they remain behind bars, with limited access to health care while their health deteriorates. Research shows that prison actually speeds up a person’s aging: A person in prison who is 55 years old has a health profile that is more like someone who is 65, or even older.
Giving older people a chance to come home to their families after years in prison can give them more time to acclimate to society and be with the people they love. It will also help reduce the high cost to taxpayers of keeping older people in prison.
The Elder Parole Bill will ensure that every person 55 and older who has served 15 consecutive years or more is considered for release by the parole board. It will also create a pathway to allow older people in prison an opportunity to demonstrate that they are ready to be released and back in their community.
Fair and Timely Parole. Our state’s prison population has decreased over the last decade, but the average minimum sentence has climbed to 10 years. A third of New York’s prison population could serve terms of at least 15 years, and 9,000 people currently face life in prison if they are not paroled.
We must address mass incarceration at both the front end, before people are put in prison, and on the back end, after they have served a portion of their sentence and are eligible for parole. The New York Parole Board has the authority to release people before the end of their sentences if they demonstrate rehabilitation. But the number of people granted parole by the board has decreased in recent years.
The Fair and Timely Parole bill would ensure that parole decisions are based on evidence that they have been rehabilitated and a person’s current risk to public safety. The bill could make up to 12,000 people eligible for consideration for release.
Our criminal system should not be centered on vengeance. Parole should be granted based on who a person is when they come before the parole board, not on the crimes they have committed.
4. PROTECT HUMAN RIGHTS IN JAILS AND PRISONS
A.PROTECT HUMAN RIGHTS IN JAILS AND PRISONS
New York should make our corrections system more humane.
End Exploitative Labor Practices in Our State Correctional System
The 13th Amendment ended chattel slavery, but with an insidious exception that allows for “involuntary servitude ... as a punishment for a crime.” For 150 years, New York’s penal system has been so dependent on human exploitation that it is akin to modern-day slavery. Currently, incarcerated people – disproportionately Black, Brown, and Indigenous – are forced to work for pennies an hour under threat of punishment like solitary confinement, delayed parole, or the revocation of family visits.
Incarcerated workers quite literally subsidize the cost of operating and maintaining prisons. Most New Yorkers who are in state correctional programs staff, clean, and maintain the operations of the same facilities that imprison them.
The most flagrant use of prison labor is a multi-million-dollar state revenue source, now a permanent fixture of the state budget. Every year, Corcraft, a corporation run by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and staffed by incarcerated workers, earns over $65 million for the state by producing items like furniture for New York’s public schools and universities, city garbage cans, eyeglasses worn by New Yorkers receiving Medicaid, and license plates. In fact, during the current COVID crisis, the state has even called on incarcerated workers to support its pandemic response by bottling hand sanitizer and making personal protective equipment – often while cruelly denying these workers access to their own basic protective gear.
The Freedom from Forced Labor Act is simple and straightforward. It would amend the correction law to say that no incarcerated person be compelled to provide labor against their will by force or punishment.
The widespread and largely invisible use of prison labor sustains an immoral system founded on the denial of incarcerated New Yorkers’ basic humanity. Enacting the Freedom from Forced Labor Act will end this manifestation of modern-day slavery in New York for good.
End Gender Identity-Based Mistreatment in the Correctional System
Transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, and intersex (TGNCNBI) New Yorkers disproportionately face food, shelter, and employment insecurity; race-based and gender-based discrimination; and immigration status issues. They are also notoriously over-policed and over-criminalized, and as a result, disproportionately likely to be incarcerated. Incarceration is dehumanizing for anyone, but TGNCNBI people, especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, are particularly likely to experience harassment, degradation, and violence. During processing and while in custody, people whose gender expression does not conform to their sex assigned at birth are frequently misgendered and referred to in demeaning ways. Some TGNCNBI individuals are placed in facilities that do not match their gender identities or that otherwise put their safety at risk. Improper housing regularly leads to violence, and when TGNCNBI people are attacked, they are often put in solitary confinement for extended periods of time.
In 2021, New York must enact measures to help keep TGNCNBI people safe when they are incarcerated by requiring that prisons and jails house and treat people consistently with their gender identities, and by putting limits on involuntary protective custody or solitary confinement.
Protect the Reproductive Rights and Health of Pregnant Incarcerated People
Every pregnant individual – including those who are incarcerated – has a right to be treated with dignity. They are also entitled to information and resources to make their own reproductive health decisions. But these fundamental rights are denied for far too many, especially for pregnant people in the criminal system.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) prohibits outside support persons during labor and delivery, despite research that shows support people result in a safer and more positive birth experience. And incarcerated people often don’t know what supports exist for their reproductive care and what their rights are, due to lack of transparency.
Legislators must pass legislation that provides incarcerated people with information about their right to obtain abortion care, their option to participate in pregnancy counseling, and about nursery programs that allow them to stay with their newborn after birth. Legislators must also support legislation that ensures pregnant people who are incarcerated can have a support person of their choice present during labor and delivery.
5. STOP ABUSIVE POLICING
A.STOP ABUSIVE POLICING
New York should stop relying on police as mental health responders, end no-knock raids, restrict police use of weapons of war, ensure that police disciplinary proceedings are independent, and ban rogue DNA databases.
The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and too many other Black and Brown people sparked protests throughout the country and across the state in 2020. This mass mobilization of New Yorkers demanding justice for Black lives propelled New York lawmakers to pass long-overdue police reform measures to increase transparency and accountability. Important as these measures are, it is clear that reforms alone are not sufficient to address the structural and cultural problems inherent in law enforcement.
New York must fundamentally transform the role of policing in our state – and our budget. The Legislature has an opportunity to meet this moment with a bold new vision for community safety that starts with removing police as the default solution to address mental health needs, housing and food insecurity, and school safety and discipline. That vision must include moving beyond reforms that simply reinforce the role of police officers in the daily lives of Black and Brown communities and people experiencing poverty. And it must include significantly reducing the vast amounts of money spent on surveillance technologies and military equipment that treat entire populations with suspicion.
Police departments across the state have increasingly been using military grade armaments that are often acquired through state and federal grant programs. New York must end military programs and enact state laws to prevent abusive and invasive policing methods.
Help People in Crisis
New York must fundamentally transform the role of policing in our state – and we must start by ending our over-reliance on police as first responders in every crisis. In March 2020, Daniel Prude was experiencing an acute mental health crisis when his family called 911 for help. He was naked in the street, and posed no risk to any other person. Yet, Rochester Police responded in large numbers, handcuffed him, placed a hood over his head, and held him face down on the cold pavement until he stopped breathing. Daniel Prude was a man experiencing an obvious mental health crisis, and he deserved care and dignity – but he was denied both.
Studies show that up to half of people who become victims of police violence have a disability – and the overwhelming majority of those people have a mental health disability. Tragically, for many New Yorkers, 911 has become the only option for people looking for mental health crisis intervention. Police often arrive at the scene armed with deadly weapons, a lack of mental health training, and an inability to deescalate the personal crises they are so often assigned to handle.
We need policy change that shifts our whole vision of how our community responds to people in crisis. And it starts by treating mental health and substance use as public health issues – not public safety issues for the police. Daniel’s Law would ensure that professionals who have experience with mental health, drug use, and disability set the rules for responding to a mental health crisis. These experts would run regional and state councils that develop training and rules for all calls to dispatch, and all responses to mental health emergencies. The law would ensure that responses to people in mental health crises are driven by evidence-based practices and that trained mental health professionals – not police – are the first to respond to New Yorkers experiencing a mental health crisis.
When our friends, neighbors, or community members are experiencing a mental health crisis, they deserve to be treated with compassion, care, and understanding – not cops and the threat of jail. With Daniel’s Law, the Legislature holds the possibility for real community safety that starts with removing police as the default solution to address mental health needs.
End No-Knock Raids
No-knock and quick-knock warrants and raids have severe and deadly consequences for communities targeted for aggressive over-policing. It’s time for these raids to end. Lawmakers must pass legislation ending no-knock raids for drug and property offenses and demilitarizing warrant executions altogether. The Legislature must also end the practice of police departments and municipal governments profiting from seizing people’s property during these searches and arrests by putting a stop to civil asset forfeiture.
Restrict Police Use of Tear Gas
Americans have a First Amendment right to engage in peaceful mass protest. But this past year, police departments across New York – and across the country – preemptively sprayed and gassed nonviolent demonstrators marching for Black Lives and other movements, effectively targeting political activism and dispersing peaceful crowds. New York must prohibit police from using tear gas and other chemical irritants against crowds, except as a last resort against imminent mass violence.
Restrict Police Use of Drones
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are small and quiet, can remain aloft for hours at time, and can be equipped with anything from long-range cameras to fake cell phone towers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection used Predator drones – military hardware – to monitor Black Lives Matter demonstrations this past summer, and the NYPD routinely uses drones to quietly surveil everything from social distancing to mass demonstrations. New York should not permit widespread drone surveillance of public events and activities protected by the First Amendment. Legislators should pass legislation that ensures that:
- The use of a drone in a police investigation requires a warrant.
- Drones are not equipped with facial recognition software, weapons, or crowd control devices.
- Drone-collected data, drone-use policies, and drone operator training materials are available to the public.
End Police Use of Acoustic Weapons
Acoustic weapons, also known as long-range Acoustic devices (LRADs) or sound cannons, are devices that deliver very loud sounds over long distances. Police sometimes use these devices to emit loud and painful sounds for crowd control – and this practice must stop.
Acoustic weapons were developed for use in war zones, and indiscriminately impact everyone in their general area – including police. While we know that acoustic devices cause pain and hearing damage, and may cause permanent hearing loss, there is little research on the permanent physical impacts of their use. These untested weapons of war have no place at protests in New York.
Ensure Independent Police Discipline
For too long, police departments in New York have fought for the power to hide their misconduct, avoid accountability, and act with impunity. Some state laws give police leadership near total control over all discipline and misconduct proceedings, including Chapter 834 of the Laws of 1940, which prohibits local governments from appointing impartial judges to preside over police disciplinary cases.
In New York City, independent judges preside over disciplinary trials for all public employees except for NYPD officers. When an NYPD officer is accused of misconduct, the NYPD controls the entire process. Police department employees act as judges, hearings take place in police headquarters, and police departments set their own rules. Because of Chapter 834, these proceedings cannot happen anywhere else.
We have seen repeatedly that police departments are incapable of policing themselves. Despite the obvious and widespread evidence of misconduct and violence against protesters following the killing of George Floyd, police leaders have repeatedly defended – and even praised – officers’ actions.
New York must empower localities to independently administer police disciplinary proceedings. While much more work will still be needed, repealing Chapter 834 is a critical and necessary step toward challenging police abuse.
End Rogue DNA Databases
The government’s collection of DNA implicates New Yorkers’ ownership of private and sensitive information – our own genetic code. For good reason, New York law mandates a comprehensive and exclusive set of rules governing testing and data-banking of DNA samples. This existing law balances the rights of individuals and the interests of law enforcement and contains clear provisions designed to limit abuse of our genetic material.
Yet, New York City has developed a sprawling and unregulated DNA database that flouts the state law. There are no privacy protections for individuals whose genetic information is contained in the database, and the database exists without any independent oversight. Reports suggest that the NYPD’s methods of collecting samples for this database have been secretive, racially discriminatory, and have targeted children. The City is now in unregulated possession of the genetic material of people who have never been convicted of, charged with, or even suspected of a crime. The Legislature must act immediately to ban this rogue database, order its data destroyed, and make it clear that state law governs all genetic information held by the government.
6. INVEST IN OUR COMMUNITIES
A.INVEST IN OUR COMMUNITIES
The COVID pandemic has revealed stark inequities that run on race, income, disability, and gender lines in nearly every aspect of New Yorkers’ lives: access to health care, housing, education resources, employment, childcare, and beyond. The pandemic has heightened the public’s consciousness around issues of structural and systemic racism – and as we rebuild, we must rebuild with true equality at the core of our policies and institutions. We must ensure that all New Yorkers have robust labor rights, equitable access to health care and vaccines, affordable, universal childcare so caregivers can participate in the workforce, and universal access to high-speed internet. Lawmakers must embrace this opportunity to make New York a more equitable place for every community.
Promote Health Equity in a Pandemic
As New York has responded to COVID, too little attention has been paid to cultural competency and cultivating community trust. New York must enact laws to ensure that all of us can safely participate in the pandemic response by guaranteeing that personal information shared to receive a vaccine cannot be used to criminalize or deport anyone, and by keeping law enforcement and immigration authorities out of the public health response.
New York must also ensure that vaccine distribution is equitable, reaches all of our communities where they live and regardless of whether they have identification documents, and prioritizes those with the most need, including:
- Health care workers;
- Those working at and those living in congregate settings, including the elderly and the disabled, as well as those working at and those detained in prisons and jails;
- Essential workers, including teachers and other school staff, grocery store and pharmacy workers, and bus drivers and subway conductors, among others;
- Those with pre-existing medical conditions; and
- Those whose racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic circumstances heighten their vulnerability.
Finally, New York must acknowledge America’s long history of medical experimentation and abuse of people of color, and commit to cultural and linguistic competence in its COVID response. Just as community members have been more effective at convincing their neighbors to wear masks and adhere to social distancing, community members and organizations are more likely than outsiders to know how to convince their neighbors to get tested, to identify their contacts, to quarantine when necessary, and to be vaccinated.
Provide Universal Child Care
Childcare is a necessary support in normal times. Without access to high-quality care, parents cannot work. For single parents and for women, who are often the primary caretakers of their families, the lack of accessible childcare can have dire consequences for their income, job retention, and children’s educational outcomes.
Yet, New York State ranks among the most expensive states for childcare in the nation. The average cost of childcare exceeds rent and college tuition, and even for those who can afford it, almost two-thirds of New Yorkers live in childcare deserts where they are unable to find quality care in their neighborhoods. Moreover, for those who perform childcare work – traditionally women of color – the work is so undervalued and underpaid that almost 60 percent of the families of people who care for young children participate in public income support programs.
The COVID crisis makes clear what working families with children have long known: trusted, accessible, quality childcare is critical to public health and economic stability. Lack of childcare is a gender, race, economic, and educational justice issue. If our state’s economy is to truly recover from this pandemic, universal childcare must be a cornerstone of that recovery.
Ensure Universal High-Speed Internet
Due to COVID, New Yorkers have been living even more of our lives online. Many people rely on the internet to work, attend school, go to the doctor, seek entertainment, and visit with loved ones. Unfortunately, New Yorkers do not all have the high-speed internet that would allow us to participate in these necessary elements of our lives. This is a statewide problem; large swaths of rural New York lack the infrastructure to provide affordable broadband to residents – and in New York City, between 17 and 20 percent of New Yorkers lack internet access.
Predictably, the brunt of the digital divide falls on particular communities: people who disproportionately live at the intersection of poverty and structural racism. Forty-six percent of New York City households living below the poverty line do not have home internet access. About 30 percent of Latinx and Black New Yorkers lack broadband internet access, compared with 20 percent of white New Yorkers. This means that as more of our brick-and-mortar life shifts online, ensuring universal online access is a core racial justice issue. And as the pandemic has shifted much school instruction online, access to digital classrooms is essential to ensure New York students receive the education to which they are entitled. Right now, too many families lack adequate internet access or the devices they need to connect.
The COVID crisis sharply underscores the need for universal, reliable, affordable broadband internet. The Legislature must work to ensure that New York households have equitable access to the resources we have now by mandating affordable access to this critical utility. And it must work to create pathways to expand our existing broadband infrastructure to reach every underserved community. Access to broadband internet in 2021 should be a universal right, not a privilege for the few.
New York should strengthen workers’ rights.
New York has a proud reputation as a strong labor state – but now more than ever, working New Yorkers are struggling. Lawmakers must ensure that workplaces are safe and that fundamental labor protections cover all employees, including gig workers who are not independent contractors and agricultural workers who are still excluded from standard overtime laws.
Protect Gig Workers
Most workers in our economy are, and should be treated as, “employees” entitled to the protection of core labor standards. However, employers can abuse the independent contractor label to evade responsibility for their workforce.
When employees are misclassified as independent contractors, they are robbed of basic labor protections, including workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, wage and hour protections, workplace health and safety standards, and the right to collective bargaining. Recent studies suggest that as many as one in every 10 employees in New York is misclassified as an independent contractor. Unfortunately, current legal tests for determining worker status are inconsistently applied – and this long-standing problem is exacerbated by the growth of app-based businesses.
The Fair Play in Employment Act would create a clear and predictable independent contractor test for businesses and workers. It uses an existing model that has proven successful for addressing misclassification in the construction and commercial transportation industries. Workers who don’t meet the independent contractor test would be clearly defined as employees and afforded appropriate labor protections.
Employee misclassification hurts New Yorkers across many industries – from bike messengers and for-hire drivers to construction workers, tutors, nail salon workers, and hospitality workers. New York should preserve its place among the most progressive labor states and pass the Fair Play in Employment Act this year.
In 2019, New York enacted the historic Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which brought New York farmworkers under most standard labor protections. However, farmworkers remain excluded from the right to overtime pay after forty hours of work, which virtually every other New York State employee enjoys. Lawmakers should act immediately to remove this vestige of the Jim Crow era.
7. RESPECT PERSONAL AUTONOMY
A.RESPECT PERSONAL AUTONOMY
New York should keep the government out of people’s most personal decisions – including pregnancy, childbirth, gender identity, and medical care.
Protect Family Rights in Child Protection Investigations
The past couple of years have brought new and welcome scrutiny on the role of police, particularly in Black and Brown communities. Yet in many of those same communities, child protective services can have a similarly intrusive and harmful impact. Families of color are disproportionately reported, investigated, and brought to court over allegations of child neglect – often for dubious reasons that have more to do with poverty than maltreatment.
A knock on the door from a child protective investigator can lead to a parent’s children being taken away for months – if not years – of supervision by local authorities. Many parents are understandably confused about their rights in such situations and are coaxed into making statements or agreements against their own interest.
In 2020, lawmakers took an important first step towards reforming the child protective system by passing legislation in the state budget to mitigate the collateral consequences associated with child maltreatment reports and make it simpler for parents to clear their names. This session, the Legislature must pass legislation requiring child protective workers to give parents notice of their rights when they initially investigate families, including the right not to make statements or sign releases and to consult with an attorney.
The Legislature should also pass legislation to prohibit anonymous reports to the State Central Register. Anonymous calls are often used to harass or threaten parents, and the inherent lack of accountability in anonymous reporting casts doubt on the reliability of those reports. By requiring confidential, rather than anonymous, reporting, lawmakers can help reduce unnecessary family intervention without compromising child safety.
Advance the Health and Rights of Pregnant People
More people in the United States die of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth than in any other developed nation, and New York ranks thirtieth in the nation based on maternal death rates. Maternal mortality is a public health crisis with stark racial disparities. Black women are nearly four times more likely than white women to die of causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. New York must dismantle structural racism in our health care system, improve maternal and child health outcomes, and better the lives of families and communities across the state.
New York must center birth justice and equity by ensuring that pregnant people have access to quality health care. Public health insurance must be extended to people for one year after pregnancy to ensure seamless access to care and improved health outcomes.
Policy makers must recognize the harm to families caused by discriminatory drug testing in health care settings, which can lead to family separation and poor health outcomes for both children and parents. New York must pass legislation to ensure all pregnant patients give written, informed consent before drug testing.
Allow Medical Aid in Dying
The right to make decisions about one’s own medical care is vital, particularly for those nearing the end of life. Patients diagnosed with terminal illness often endure extensive, sometimes painful treatment. When the limits of such treatment are reached, many wish to have control over when and how their death occurs. The New York State Constitution guarantees the right of every individual to make their own medical decisions, including whether to accept or refuse medical treatment, and the law must also recognize the right of terminally ill patients to end their lives on their own terms.
The Medical Aid in Dying Act would give terminally ill people the legal right to make these critical decisions in consultation with qualified physicians. Patients could be prescribed medication for the purpose of ending their lives if they have been found by two physicians be mentally competent, making a voluntary and informed request, and suffering from a terminal illness with less than six months to live. The legislation includes multiple layers of safeguards to ensure that the decision to accelerate death is not subject to coercion.
Increase Hospital Transparency
No one should be turned away from a hospital when they need health care. And yet, hospitals often deny care based on the bureaucratic decision-making of non-medical personnel rather than sound medical science. This leaves patients in regions of the state without access to reproductive health care, end-of-life care, gender-affirming care, and other types of sensitive health care. To make matters worse, because information about what services hospitals provide is often impossible to access, patients cannot determine whether their local hospital provides the care they need. The Hospital Transparency bill would provide New Yorkers with the tools to determine whether their hospital provides the care they seek prior to admission and to identify communities where particular services are completely unavailable. In doing so, the bill lays the groundwork to expand access to care in health care deserts around the state.
8. SECURE JUSTICE FOR STUDENTS
A.SECURE JUSTICE FOR STUDENTS
New York should divest from a punitive education system and invest in the health and wellbeing of all kids.
Our public education system rewards the privileged, while disregarding Black and Brown students and those with greater needs. But education is not a privilege, it is a right.
Promote Solutions Not Suspensions
New York must pass the Judge Judith S. Kaye Solutions Not Suspensions Act to support schools in creating positive, inclusive classrooms. In New York, students lose hundreds of thousands of days of learning each year because of suspensions, often for normal youthful behavior. Students suspended are disproportionately Black and Latinx and those with disabilities. Across New York State, Black children are two to five times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates. Students who are suspended have higher likelihoods of involvement with the criminal legal system than their peers.
Suspensions limit academic achievement by using education as a reward for good behavior. Students in New York can be suspended for an entire school year, and they are not entitled to continue their regular lessons, homework, or courses during that time. New York is an outlier in allowing students to be removed from school for such long periods.
Instead of suspensions, schools should use positive discipline techniques like conflict resolution, restorative practices, and social-emotional skill building. The Judge Judith S. Kaye Solutions Not Suspensions Act will:
- Encourage the use of age-appropriate school discipline strategies
- Eliminate out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions
- Limit the use of suspensions for students in grades K-3
- Cap long-term suspensions at 20 school days
- Ensure students can continue to learn even if they are removed from school.
Deliver Comprehensive Sex Ed
New York must require comprehensive sexual health education in all public schools. Currently, schools across New York provide a patchwork of sex ed lessons that can be medically inaccurate, incomplete, and biased. Some schools provide no sex ed at all. As a result, students never receive a single lesson on issues like consent, intimate partner violence, sexual and gender identity, or sexual health and pregnancy.
Without comprehensive sex ed, young people are at risk. Among New York high school students surveyed in 2017, half had engaged in sex, but only 11 percent reported using a method to protect against pregnancy and infection. About 10 percent of New York teenagers reported experiencing dating violence, and LGBTQ youth were more likely to experience mistreatment at school or feel unsafe there. Comprehensive sexual health education is a proven tool for building a culture of inclusion and consent and preventing sexual assault and violence.
More than 93 percent of U.S. parents place high importance on sex ed in middle and high school. New York must require public schools to teach medically accurate, age-appropriate K-12 comprehensive sex education that reflects national standards and best practices.
Protect Students’ Health
For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has known that students who attend school within 500 feet of a major road, without mitigation strategies, are exposed to intense air pollution and suffer from more breathing-related medical issues like asthma. Recent studies have examined the relationship between air pollution, breathing disorders, and school achievement. Not surprisingly, researchers found that improving the air quality in a classroom by installing a simple air filter resulted in higher test scores. Yet New York is among the worst states in the country when it comes to allowing students to attend school in close proximity to a major road. While many states have outlawed the construction of schools near major roads and vice versa, New York has not.
During the COVID pandemic, schools are encouraged to open windows for increased ventilation. But for students who attend schools near major highways, this potentially life-saving tactic floods schools with air pollution from nearby traffic. Schools need infrastructure supports like air conditioners, window seals, and air filters to make sure the air kids breathe is as safe as possible, both from disease and contaminants.
The SIGH Act will empower New York to protect students from air pollution by limiting construction of schools and roads in close proximity to one another and requiring basic mitigation where these conditions already exist.
9. PROTECT IMMIGRANT NEW YORKERS
A.PROTECT IMMIGRANT NEW YORKERS
New York should shield immigrants from the draconian federal immigration system.
The past several years laid bare just how cruel and unjust our country’s immigration system is – designed to separate families, detain people indefinitely for civil offenses, and tear communities apart through deportation. This dark period shows how vital it is that New York protect immigrant residents in every way that it can.
Lawmakers in Albany took important steps in 2020 to improve access to driver’s licenses and tuition assistance for all, regardless of one’s immigration status, and to keep U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from interfering with our state court system. But New York must do more to protect immigrants’ due process rights and avoid fueling the deportation machine.
Create a New York for All
Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government, not state and local authorities. Yet in the past two decades, ICE has built its deportation infrastructure on the backs of local law enforcement, relying on police and sheriffs’ departments to disclose information and unlawfully detain people for civil immigration offenses. This collusion between ICE and local government exacerbates the harms of over-policing, spreads fear and confusion within immigrant communities, and misuses local resources to enable ICE cruelty.
The New York for All Act would follow the lead of California, Washington State, and many cities and counties across the country by drawing a sensible line between state and local government and immigration authorities. The bill would prohibit the use of local resources for immigration enforcement, end agreements that make local officers deputies of ICE, and protect New Yorkers’ personal information from improper disclosure.
Ensure Access to Representation
For immigrants who have been placed in removal proceedings and are facing the prospect of deportation, losing their case before an immigration judge can mean being uprooted from family and community, or even being put in deadly harm. Unlike in criminal proceedings, a person’s right to an attorney in immigration court is dependent on their ability to pay for one. This leaves many immigrants in the unfair and dangerous position of navigating an overwhelmingly complex and high-stakes legal process on their own. Though New York has provided funding for immigrant legal services in past years, that funding is not guaranteed year to year, leaving critical access to representation subject to the whims of annual budget cycles.
The Access to Representation Act would create a right to government-funded counsel for immigrants in removal proceedings who are in or have a nexus to New York, making sure that no New Yorker faces the threat of deportation without meaningful representation. The bill would guarantee the assistance of counsel not only in removal proceedings, but also other proceedings critical to a person’s deportation defense.
End Local Support for Immigration Detention
Among the cruelest parts of our broken immigration system is the detention of people for civil immigration violations. Across the country, immigrants who have come to the United States seeking a better life are jailed in county correctional facilities that contract with ICE to fill empty bed space. New York is no exception. These detention contracts allow ICE to maintain its massive detention capacity, and allow counties to profit off of the jailing of immigrant New Yorkers.
The Dignity Not Detention Act would work together with other immigrants’ rights legislation to end the deportation pipeline. It would prohibit state and local jails from contracting with ICE to detain immigrants, and require jails that already have contracts to terminate them. The bill would also ensure that private immigration prisons that exist in other states do not come to New York.
10. SAFEGUARD OUR DIGITAL PRIVACY
A.SAFEGUARD OUR DIGITAL PRIVACY
New York should protect our medical and personal information, ban biometric surveillance, and outlaw dragnet warrants.
New and invasive technology can pose a serious risk to our civil rights and civil liberties. Companies surreptitiously harvest our personal data for profit. Facial recognition and other biometric technologies collect physically identifiable information in secret. Algorithms used by government agencies foster discrimination while promising neutrality. And law enforcement can access our private digital communications without a judge’s approval. On top of all this, the COVID pandemic has deepened many inequities and laid bare the grave impact of the digital divide.
New Yorkers’ civil rights should extend fully to the digital world. This means ensuring algorithms don’t undermine anti-discrimination laws, guaranteeing meaningful access to and control of our personal data, banning biometric surveillance technologies, requiring tailored warrants to access our online communications and data, and providing equitable and safe technology access to those in most need.
Protect Our Personal Information Online
It is no longer possible to participate in society without providing personal information to private companies and other entities that can reveal the most intimate details of our lives. People often do not know or consent to the ways that companies collect, use, retain, share, and monetize our personal information. And when we try to exert control, we wind up mired in the inscrutable fine print of privacy policies and user agreements. The consequences of privacy abuses can be profound. Precisely-targeted pricing, advertising, and other automated decision tools are used to exclude people of color, women, and older individuals from housing, credit, and employment opportunities in ways that would be unthinkable in the offline world. Government agencies increasingly turn to automated decision systems to determine everything from teacher evaluations and child custody to sentencing, probation, and parole – and more. Computer-generated decisions have the veneer of objectivity, but these systems are built on human inputs, and they produce biased results. These technologies all too often replicate and amplify harm towards people who already face bias and discrimination.
New York needs comprehensive privacy protections that:
- Show us how our personal information is collected, used, and shared, and let us control what is collected, how it is used, and where it goes;
- Require businesses to maintain our personal information securely and use it only as we intend;
- Respect First Amendment values like robust online speech, a free press, and open access to publicly available information; and
- Ensure that anti-discrimination rules apply fully to the digital world.
Ban Biometric Surveillance
In recent years, New York has seen a rise in the use of biometric recognition technologies – like face, voice, and gait recognition – by police and in housing, schools, and mass transit, and on our roads and bridges. Last year, the Legislature recognized the threat that biometric surveillance poses to our children, and rightly placed a moratorium on its use in New York schools. It is time to go further.
Biometric surveillance presents an unprecedented threat to our privacy and civil liberties, aiming to track who we are, where we go, and who we meet. Yet, despite its invasive nature, biometric technologies are notoriously inaccurate and racially biased. Numerous studies have shown that face surveillance technologies are particularly inaccurate for women and people of color. In addition, many biometric technologies rely on the remote monitoring and collection of your personal biological characteristics – without your consent or knowledge. Unlike a password or credit card number, this information cannot be changed if it is compromised or stolen.
Lawmakers must pass a ban on biometric surveillance by government, in particular by law enforcement, and in other areas where our fundamental rights are at stake.
Ban Dragnet/Geofence Warrants
Warrants are a central tool for law enforcement investigations, but they need to be narrowly targeted, specific, and based on probable cause. Dragnet warrants, which are often based on overly broad factors like search engine keywords or location, do not meet this baseline standard and harm the privacy and safety of countless people who happen to meet the stated criteria. Broad warrant requests could place hundreds or thousands of unsuspecting and innocent people in the crosshairs of law enforcement, potentially violating their Fourth Amendment rights. As technology providers and data brokers capture ever-more detailed data trails, dragnet warrants must be banned.
11. CREATE A PATH TO TRUE EQUITY FOR ALL NEW YORKERS
A.CREATE A PATH TO TRUE EQUITY FOR ALL NEW YORKERS
New York should pass an Equality Amendment to the state constitution and study the impacts of slavery.
As civil rights are threatened at the federal level, New York must be a last line of defense. As the courts make it tougher to fight discrimination, our state must make plain that prejudice has no home in our state. To do this, we must confront our own history honestly and thoroughly – and create a path forward that makes sure our laws are never again wielded to benefit a select few. We must also make clear that religion cannot be used to justify discrimination in the provision of medical care, public accommodation, housing, or employment.
The Legislature must act to ensure that inclusive, formal legal equality is part of our Constitution – and begin the necessary work of determining what reparations we owe the Black community for the damage our entrenched systems of inequality have inflicted.
Pass an Equality Amendment
Our State Constitution sets forth the fundamental rights that are protected against discrimination. But New York’s existing equal protection clause (Article 1, Section 11 of the New York Constitution) is more than 80 years old and only contains limited and symbolic protections. It needs an update to reflect today’s New York.
To achieve true and lasting equality, New York must amend the State Constitution to include a robust, comprehensive, and inclusive Equality Amendment. Lawmakers should pass anti-discrimination language that includes protections based on a person’s race, sex, gender identity, pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, and religion.
New York must increase the categories of people protected by the law and also expand New York’s constitutional protections to address the structural impacts of racism and bigotry, including by explicitly protecting affirmative action programs in the face of a hostile U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s time for New York’s Constitution to have an inclusive and updated Equality Amendment to truly secure equal rights for all New Yorkers.
Study the Impacts of Slavery
We will never achieve racial justice if we do not examine the impact of slavery and its legacy – and make strides toward achieving reparatory justice.
Structural racism and white supremacy are deeply embedded across laws and policies in New York. While the state is recognized as being the first in the nation to abolish slavery, its history of sustained systemic oppression for descendants of enslaved Africans has left a legacy that continues today through the racial wealth gap, de facto segregation, disparities in health, mass criminalization and incarceration, education inequity, and environmental racism.
Reparations are not a symbolic act – they are a real and necessary demand for justice that can serve as a baseline for a more just and equal future. And true reparative justice will mean not only the consideration of payments to make up for past economic theft from Black communities, but also confronting and dismantling systems that enable racial discrimination to continue today.
No amount of material resources or monetary compensation can ever offer full restitution for the physical, economic, cultural, emotional, and spiritual damage inflicted on enslaved African Americans for the enrichment of the United States. But to begin to reckon with the impacts of slavery, lawmakers must pass a bill creating a commission to study the impact of slavery on the descendants of enslaved Africans and those from the diaspora, and provide remedies to past and ongoing harms.