New York should end mass incarceration and overcriminalization in our state.
In the face 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. 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.
Marijuana arrests have a devastating and disproportionate impact on communities of color. In New York, more than 80 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession are Black or Latinx.
New York decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, but it left in place loopholes that allowed for hundreds of thousands of arrests for smoking in public and public display of marijuana. Low-level possession has remained one of the most frequently charged crimes in New York, generating more than 800,000 arrests since 1996.
Marijuana arrests have a disastrous impact on New Yorkers, especially in communities of color. Hundreds of thousands of people across the state have been funneled into the criminal legal system for behavior that most New Yorkers don’t even believe should be a crime. This entanglement with the legal system can have far-reaching consequences: people can lose their jobs, housing, and child custody. Lives can be upended and destroyed.
In 2019, New York took additional steps to undo some of the harms of criminalizing marijuana, including eliminating misdemeanors for smoking in public and public display of marijuana, lowering penalty amounts for low-level possession, and expunging records of convictions for low-level offenses. These steps are important, but they do not undo the devastating consequences wrought by decades of aggressively enforced prohibition.
It’s time to end the criminalization of cannabis for good by passing the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) and making New York the 16th state to legalize and regulate cannabis.
- Allows adults 21 and older to legally possess, purchase, and consume cannabis for personal recreational use
- Removes cannabis and cannabis products from the state Controlled Substances Act
- Legalizes private cultivation of up to six plants
- Builds on past reforms by eliminating most existing misdemeanors and felonies related to cannabis, and expands avenues for expungement and resentencing for prior convictions
- Ensures a well-regulated, diverse, and inclusive legal cannabis industry going forward
The fiscal benefits of legalizing cannabis are substantial – the MRTA would direct hundreds of millions of dollars in annual state revenues from legal sales to good use. Half of the tax revenues would go to the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund for job training, after-school programs, and community-centered projects in low-income communities and areas hardest hit by the war on drugs. These are often the same communities that have experienced the highest rates of infection and death from Covid, so these community reinvestment provisions will also be essential to the state’s recovery from the pandemic. Another 25 percent of the surplus revenue would fund drug treatment programs and public education campaigns. The remaining share would help fund public schools.
The MRTA is a long-overdue initiative to right a grave, decades-long injustice. It is time for New York officials to step up, stop the harm, and start repairing the damage from the failed war on drugs.
A New Start for Trafficking Survivors
In 2009, New York became the first state in the country to allow courts to clear convictions from a trafficking survivor’s criminal record. But the law only allows survivors to clear prostitution-related offenses and does not address the myriad offenses that traffickers compel labor trafficking and sex trafficking survivors to commit.
A criminal record imposes life-long, detrimental effects, limiting access to employment and educational opportunities, financial resources, and housing. A criminal record can also result in severe immigration consequences, including the threat of deportation and the inability to adjust immigration status or become a citizen.
The START Act follows the progress in other states and fixes the current law’s shortcomings by empowering courts to clear convictions for all offenses that were a result of being trafficked. It also protects survivors by ensuring that their information is kept confidential and offering critical relief to immigrant survivors.
It’s past time to ensure that those who have been exploited by traffickers are able to clear their records.
Reform New York’s Parole System
Parole for Older People
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.[vii]
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.[viii]
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..[ix]
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.[x]
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.[xi]
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.
Less is More
Under New York law, people on parole can be sent to prison for technical violations like being out past curfew or missing an appointment with a parole officer. Nearly 40 percent of the people sent to state prison in New York in 2018 were incarcerated for technical parole violations, not for committing crimes. And they are automatically locked up, regardless of the alleged infraction.
There are 35,000 people living under parole supervision in New York who are required to comply with certain rules after their release from prison.[xii] They can be sent to jail or prison if a court finds that there is a better chance than not that a person violated their parole. Unsurprisingly, parole revocations are one of the major drivers of incarceration in county jails and prisons across the state.
People who are released from jail or prison have the opportunity to get back to their community and to their families. We should be doing everything we can to help them contribute to society, instead of finding ways to put them back behind bars for technical violations.
Lawmakers should pass the Less is More Act, which would:
- Prevent most people accused of technical parole violations from being put behind bars
- Allow people under community supervision to earn “good time credits” that will reduce the amount of time a person has to stay under supervision
- Provide protections to ensure people are not incarcerated while their alleged parole violation is adjudicated
- Require speedy hearings for any technical parole violation
The Less is More Act simply recognizes that people on parole who have committed no new crimes should not be locked up.
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.
Last session, 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.
Reform Sentencing Laws
Thousands of New Yorkers suffer under our state’s convoluted, arbitrary and, unreasonable sentencing scheme.
In 2021, the NYCLU will work with stakeholders, lawmakers, and advocates to develop a plan for reforming New York’s sentencing laws to produce a rehabilitative system that increases community stability and public safety.