Akeem Browder and Gabriel Sayegh talk Cuomo's criminal justice reforms

Darren McGee/Office of the Governor

Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out a number of sweeping criminal justice reform proposals during his State of the State address, including the elimination of cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent crimes and changing the discovery process so defendants can see evidence earlier.

During the speech, the governor asked Akeem Browder, a criminal justice reform advocate and former New York City mayoral candidate, to stand and be recognized. Browder’s brother, Kalief Browder, awaited trial for three years at Rikers Island Jail for allegedly stealing a backpack. The charges were ultimately dismissed and he was released, but he later killed himself. "Akeem, I want you to know that your brother did not die in vain," Cuomo said, to loud applause. 

Akeem Browder dropped into the Slant podcast along with Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder and co-director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, to discuss Cuomo’s proposals and criminal justice reform at large. 

“On bail, the governor’s done something that we’re happy with in terms of his direction,” Sayegh said. “In the fall, it was not clear where the governor was going to land on bail reform. Remember, he’s put this in his State of the State the last two years, but not much has happened.”

Sayegh and Browder feel positively about Cuomo’s proposals, but said he offered few concrete details. They both added they look forward to seeing those details when they come out.

“The devil will be in the details in all of this of course,” Sayegh said.

The following is an excerpt from the conversation, edited for clarity.

C&S: What do you see as the most important points Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out in his State of the State address?

GS: The strongest of those five proposals was definitely his bail reform outline. In the fall, it was not clear where the governor would fall on bail reform. He's put this into his State of the State the last two years, but not much has happened. And last fall, or up until that time, it really looked like the governor may go down a pathway many groups in the state of New York did not want to happen. And so we worked with a number of groups and organized a sign-on letter with 130-plus signatories from every region of the state, laying out what the concerns were about bail reform. And it looks like that really landed in a positive way.

C&S: Are you confident that these reforms will pass?

AB: I think Gov. Cuomo has some concern about making it real for the people, and so I'm going to be encouraging because I want the governor and his office to be a part of something that will help bring communities together. I think he has initiative to want to do it now also. Not just because of re-election, but he has something bigger when it comes to the United States, period, challenging what has already been brought to New York when it comes to the orange man in office. Quite frankly, it has brought real light to New York, because we're under attack because of what the federal government is doing.

C&S: What has the governor put out that isn't as aggressive as you would like?

AB: We have a lot of strong advocates that come in and weigh in heavily, whether it be different ideas, different policy demands, and I've come to realize you can't please everyone. We do have to have certain things that keep and protect our rights, as well as those of our children. However, when you have a person that controls different aspects, like the governor, he can use his bully pulpit to actually push for things because this is the moment and it's ripe. And Gov. Cuomo has been actually strong when it comes to timing. I'd just rather him have put out more detail as to what those initiatives will look like. When it comes to pushing for something, I think we’ll see that in 2018 because he has a real reason to make New York stronger.

C&S: How is the state doing in terms of the resources needed for speedy trials?

GS: There are half as many cases cycling through New York City courts today as there were 20 years ago, but it's taking twice as long. We do have a problem here in the city. But I think a significant area of focus needs to be on the district attorneys, particularly here in Manhattan. Cy Vance, his profile as an extraordinarily progressive DA is not consistent with his actions on the ground. The day-to-day practices of his ADAs are really regressive. Take examples like when he said they were going to stop putting people through the system for jumping a turnstile, but those cases are still popping up on a regular basis. I think Mr. Vance gets away with a lot more regressive practices by dressing them up inside of progressive language.

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