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‘We’re out of excuses’: NY progressives want justice reform now that Democrats have supermajority

Center for Community Alternatives
Activists rally in Long Island Tuesday for the Justice Roadmap 2021 legislative agenda.

Progressive activists and lawmakers held a virtual rally across New York state on Tuesday, calling on Democrats to pass sweeping criminal justice reform next year now that the party has a supermajority in the state Senate.

Stanley Bellamy, an 58-year-old inmate serving a 62-year-to-life sentence at Green Haven Correctional Facility, briefly joined the rally via a prison telephone.

“I’m one of the many incarcerated elders praying for the passing of parole for elders,” he began, referring to a bill that would allow older inmates who have served at least 15 years to be considered for parole, regardless of their crime or sentence.

Credit Center for Community Alternatives
Activists rally outside the Westchester County Courthouse Tuesday.

But Bellamy was then cut off with an automated message warning he had just one minute left on his call.

“Oh my God. They’re going to cut me off,” he said. “I don’t even have enough time to say anything of what I really wanted to say, but I just wanted to give an apology on behalf of the men of Green Haven Correctional Facility to our community for the harms that our crimes have caused.”

The line went dead several moments later. Other rally speakers say this was emblematic of the problems they’re trying to fix in New York’s criminal justice system.

“It was almost symbolic to hear what Stanley was going through just to get his voice heard,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, D-Manhattan. 

“This system is not broken. It's working exactly as it was designed to, and that's to be harmful. And we need to make sure to write the racism out of our criminal justice system.”

Their proposed reforms, titled “Justice Roadmap 2021,” combine both criminal justice and immigration reform, and will be lobbied for in one legislative package once the 2021 legislative session begins in January, activists say.

Bills in the package would release more older prisoners, eliminate court and probation fees, end solitary confinement, legalize marijuana, and stop police from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, among other reforms.

The package is endorsed by 150 advocacy groups, including the Center for Community Alternatives in New York City. Marvin Mayfield, the group’s statewide organizer, coordinated Tuesday’s rally.

He said the state’s current system exiles people of color and immigrants through prison and deportation, and then takes away their resources through fines and fees.

The Prison Policy Initiative reports New York has among the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S., with 443 out of every 100,000 people behind bars, but that rate is still higher than nearly every country in the world.

“With the Justice Roadmap we are saying that ends today,” Mayfield said. “We stand together for bold systemic change, to de-carerate jails, prisons and detention centers, and ensure that basic human dignity and core human rights are the core human rights of all New Yorkers.”

Mayfield and other activists also made clear they believe their roadmap is actually more of a mandate, given that voters this Election Day provided Democrats with a Senate supermajority to go along with the party’s long-standing Assembly supermajority.

Donna Robinson, a Buffalo prison reform activist who livestreamed outside the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo, didn’t mince words about their expectations.

“To the lawmakers in Albany: If you don’t want to do your job, guess what? You are fired. Because in 2021, playtime is over. Too many people are dying needlessly behind bars,” she said.

Donna Robinson livestreams she and other Buffalo activists' rally outside the Erie County Holding Center Tuesday.

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, D-Queens, she said agreed with Robinson.

“We’re out of excuses,” she said. “Every legislator that truly believes that we should be treating people with dignity, if they aren’t doing everything in their power to make sure that we pass this roadmap next year, then we need to find new colleagues.”

The political ramifications of such sweeping reform was briefly acknowledged during the rally. State Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse, said the state’s bail reform passed last year was “weaponized” against she and other Democrats running for reelection last month. However, she said voters ultimately saw through Republicans’ “scare tactics.”

“They understood that our streets are not safer when people are indiscriminately incarcerated. They understood that poverty is not a crime and should not be treated as such,” she said. “I believe in redemption, and I pledge to work for a more just prison system. … I look forward to working on the Justice Roadmap in 2021.”

The 2021 legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 6.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.