NWBI Tackles Criminal Justice Reform

Northwest Bronx Indivisible’s January meeting was a fascinating town hall on criminal justice reform. In a wide-ranging discussion, panelists Roger Clark, Filipe Vargas, Marty Galvin, and Anisah Sabur (bios are here) addressed two recently implemented laws making significant revisions to the criminal justice process in New York State: the bail reform law, and a law requiring prosecutors to provide defense attorneys evidence in their possession within 15 days of an indictment.

from left, Roger Clark, Filipe Vargas, Marty Galvin, Anisah Sabur

A video of the meeting is available on Facebook; a recap of some of the key points follows:

Of the two new laws, bail reform, which significantly reduces the number of charges that require the accused to post bail, has gotten a great deal of attention in the press. The purpose of bail is to ensure that defendants appear for trial. The problem with the previous bail law was that many poor individuals charged with non-violent crimes were trapped in jail because they could not afford even a modest bail. There have been a number of reports that accused violent criminals now freed without bail are committing repeat crimes. These reports are misleading; bail is still required for violent crimes.

The second reform requires that prosecutors inform defense attorneys of any evidence they have no later than 15 days after an indictment has been filed. Before this law, it was common for prosecutors to deliver the evidence on the first day of trial, significantly hampering the defense team’s ability to respond to the evidence against their client.

The subject of plea bargaining was explored in depth. As envisioned, a plea bargain is a tool that offers a defendant the opportunity of a reduced sentence if he/she pleads guilty, thus sparing the state the expense of going to trial. However, the tool can be abused when defendants, who may be innocent, are unable to make bail. They then languish in jail, away from their families, sometimes for as long as two years prior to trial. These defendants may, out of desperation, plead guilty to a crime they did not commit just to speed up the process. Because of the massive backlog of cases, prosecutors may also deliberately pressure defendants to take a plea, simply to “keep things moving” and avoid a lengthy trial.

The criminal justice system does very little to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes. Most crimes are crimes of survival committed by individuals who are poor and lack job skills. Mental illness and drug abuse play a significant role pushing people into criminal acts. People with dozens of arrests are very likely to be drug users or mentally ill. Therefore, the path to reducing crime and criminal behavior is to provide support and job skills that give convicted felons leaving prison a constructive alternative to crime.

Of course, there is much more to see in the video.

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