The Speaker and Council are committed to improving conditions and implementing more effective policies to help fix our criminal justice system. In 2017, the Council pushed for more reform in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and the New York City Department of Correction (DOC), working with advocates to build momentum for closing all jails on Riker’s Island. As a result of this effort, the Administration moved closer to a vision for justice that rejects the warehousing of people.
Changing the Bail System
Roughly 85 percent of the City’s jail population are pre-trial detainees, the majority of whom are incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay bail. Those who can afford bail face a myriad of unnecessary hurdles in doing so, which results in needless, prolonged periods of incarceration. The Council passed a series of five bills to rectify this situation, including a bill sponsored by the Speaker that requires DOC to accept bail payments immediately and continuously, and to release those who do pay bail within a short period of time.
The Council also passed legislation requiring:
- DOC to hold detainees at court longer to provide more time for bail payments to be made before that individual’s transfer to Rikers Island, and to pair inmates with “bail facilitators” to expedite these processes;
- the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to conspicuously post information about bail posting processes in courts; and
- the NYPD to permit those they arrest to write down important contact information.
Supporting Discharge Planning and Transparency
In 2017, the Council passed legislation to ensure that all inmates incarcerated longer than 30 days receive educational or vocational programming, to require discharge planning for most sentenced inmates, and to create increased transparency in the provision of educational services to incarcerated individuals.
Fighting to Close Rikers
This year, under the initiative of the Speaker, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released a landmark report, with a unanimous recommendation to close the Riker’s Island Correctional Center. To lay the groundwork, the Council secured support from Council Members in key districts where new jails would likely be located, as well as the support of the Administration to make closing Rikers the official policy of the City of New York. The Council has already passed legislation implementing many of the reforms recommended in the Commission’s report, funded the continuing work of the Commission, funded recommended programming, and held an oversight hearing to track the Administration’s progress in addressing this critical issue.
Passing the “Right to Know” Act
After almost four years of negotiations with the NYPD, the advocacy community, and the bill’s sponsors, the Council passed the final two bills in the Community Safety Act, collectively called the “Right to Know” Act. One of the two bills requires officers to identify themselves and to hand business cards to the public during certain police encounters. The second bill will ensure that officers gain knowing, voluntary, and intelligent consent prior to conducting a consent search. Both bills will create meaningful practice and policy changes within the NYPD. They will also increase transparency, foster greater accountability during police-civilian encounters, and improve the relationship the police have with our communities.
Making Use of Critical Data
Six city entities—the Law Department, the Comptroller, the NYPD, the Inspector General for the NYPD, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption—collect information on police misconduct through complaints and lawsuits. However, there is limited coordination and analysis on how to use this information to improve policing and reduce related costs to the City. This year, the Council passed legislation to improve collaboration and coordination among these agencies by requiring:
- bi-annual reporting by the Law Department on lawsuits against the NYPD alleging misconduct;
- regular studies by the Inspector General examining all sources of information on police misconduct held by various city entities, identifying patterns, and issuing recommendations on ways to reduce misconduct; and
- a study by the NYPD on determinations by judges that an officer’s testimony at a trial is not credible.
Additionally, prior to this year, there was no requirement that city agencies share information pertaining to litigation alleging improper conduct by correction officers. This limited the potential for comprehensive and coordinated efforts to identify and correct trends of correction officer misconduct to promote safer jails and decreased costs of litigation. The Council passed legislation requiring the Law Department to provide semi-annual public reports on civil actions filed against DOC and its employees, including the amount of any financial payment by the City as part of a settlement or other disposition.
Requiring Gun Warnings
Polling consistently shows that people believe having a gun in their homes makes them safer, but there is incontrovertible evidence that the opposite is true in many respects. There is a consensus among all who study this issue that having a gun in a house by itself, independently from any other variable, makes owners and occupants at an increased risk of suicide, death during domestic violence incidents, and unintentional deaths to children and others. This bill adds a warning to the gun licensing program in the City similar to warnings on cigarette packages. This warning states that “the presence of a firearm in the home has been associated with an increased risk of death to self and others, including an increased risk of suicide, death during domestic violence incidents, and unintentional deaths to children and others.”
The Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA): One Year Later
In May 2016, the Council passed historic legislation to create more proportional penalties for certain low-level, non-violent offenses and has led to a 90 percent drop in criminal court summonses. This reduction means that thousands of New Yorkers will never face the threat of unnecessary arrest for failure to appear in court for a low-level offense. This translates to less cases clogging up our overburdened court systems, more people at home caring for their families and not missing work or school, and less New Yorkers being sent to Rikers, which saves the City from unnecessary expenditures for non-violent offenses.
In August 2017, the Council also worked with four of the City’s District Attorney offices to clear the summons backlog for minor offenses like having an open container or entering a park after hours. This dismissed over 644,000 outstanding warrants. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called for this initiative in her 2017 State of the City address, so that New Yorkers would no longer have unnecessary interactions with the criminal justice system.