Personality

Latrice Walker: Eric Adams’ crime summit was ‘a real discussion’

In a Q&A, the Assembly member downplayed bail reform as a political liability for Democrats.

Assembly Member Latrice Walker said talks with the mayor on criminal justice were productive.

Assembly Member Latrice Walker said talks with the mayor on criminal justice were productive. Diane Bondareff/Mayoral Photography Office

Assembly Member Latrice Walker is an ardent defender of the state’s bail reform laws – so much so that she challenged New York City Mayor Eric Adams to a debate over the real impacts of bail reform, after he pushed lawmakers to make changes that would result in more people accused of crimes being held in jail. Walker, a Democrat from Brooklyn, then went on a hunger strike to protect bail reform laws this year. While the most radical proposed changes were left out of the April budget, some rollbacks were still included, against Walker’s wishes.  

So Adams was clearly looking for a differing perspective on criminal justice issues when he invited her to a public safety summit at the mayor’s residence last weekend. City & State talked to the attorney lawmaker this week about getting people off Rikers, why bail reform wasn’t part of the discussion and what it’s like to hear Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin talk about crime. 

You attended New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ public safety summit at Gracie Mansion. Was there real debate, or was this a photo-op?

It was a real discussion. I wouldn’t say it was a debate. There were many different individuals from different varying professions. The private criminal defense perspective, Legal Aid, there were representatives of the various criminal justice-related city agencies. Folks were working through many of the challenges, and the biggest thing that came out of it (was) there are a number of individuals who are still on Rikers Island for either over 400 days, over 300 days, over 200 days, over 100 days. And the conversation went to what is going to be the process to streamline the release of those individuals, whether it’s through the adjudication of their cases, or if some of them are at the conclusion of a sentence which requires them to be confined at Rikers.

Additionally, there are a lot of requirements (for) district attorneys and defense lawyers with respect to discovery. And one of the issues that comes up is that the system just needs more resources to be put to it. Whether it’s hiring of staff in order to focus on document production, streamlining a process for individuals who are on Rikers Island to be brought to court on their respective court date, so that it's not a waste on the system, them being brought down and it has to be adjourned. And police officers actually leaving their posts to show up to court and the court is adjourned once they find out they’re there. And so to figure out a way to make the adjudication of cases just move more efficiently.

It was billed as a public safety summit. This sounds like it was more into the technicalities of criminal law. Would you say public safety was addressed?

This is public safety. The biggest questions came out why things are taking so long. How is it that a person can be arrested on a case in Brooklyn, and then arrested again in the Bronx, and there’s no interconnectedness?

And, of course, providing more services for people who have gone through mental health crises. Instead of the criminal justice system being the first line of defense for mental health, what are some of the agencies, community-based organizations, that may be able to be deployed in order to assist in mental health services.

There was reporting that bail reform was not discussed at the summit. Is that right? And do you think it should have been addressed, or, as a supporter of the reforms, do you think it’s a good sign that the mayor wasn’t harping on it?

I wouldn’t say that. I just think the conversation around bail has been a distraction because it’s so highly politicized. There are a number of reports that have come out that there is no connection (between) the rise in crime and bail reform. And we’re not getting to the real issues that are plaguing our criminal justice system because bail reform is sucking all the air out of everything. So we were sort of getting to more of the crux of the matter, as opposed to getting into political conversations around bail.

Do you think the mayor’s stance has softened or changed? Do you expect him to push for dangerousness once again next session?

Because there was really no movement on bail, I don’t think that anyone has really changed with respect to this. Safe to say, though, that we do recognize that we need more resources for pretrial services. That definitely came up as a conversation. There’s always the talk about people just being released and judges not having discretion. And I’ve always said that judges have more tools in their toolbox now for you to connect people to varying things such as housing, employment, and I think that these are some of the things that can be addressed if we actually funded pretrial services to the level that it deserves.

You were the sponsor of the original bail reform framework from 2019. How does it feel to see Lee Zeldin hammer bail reform day after day in his campaign for governor? Does it feel like this has become a political liability for Democrats that may cost the party some power?

I wouldn’t say that it has become a political liability. But I will say that I’ve seen the conversation become more about sound bites than it is about justice and it is about the law. So I am not surprised to see that he is harping on bail reform – but without him really knowing all of the nuances of bail or even recognizing them. Even when I see some of my colleagues, and they’re putting out statements, I’ll send them things that will refute the statements that they’re making. They acknowledge like, look, we’re having an election right now and this is the topic. So I don’t think that we’ll be able to really get into any real conversations around the issue until after the political season has come to a conclusion.

Any particular colleague has been a hypocrite on this?

I don’t think anyone is a hypocrite on it.

Do you think there’s a consensus on the most important issues among New York City Democrats when it comes to criminal justice? Or are there still massive disagreements?

I think that the one thing that we can all agree on is the fact that we need a more efficient way of exacting justice. And it requires judges, who were also in the room, defense counsels, prosecutors, service providers and everyone to have a system – perhaps like the state of Texas – where there’s a unified discovery system. Things could move more quickly, and there won’t be such a delay or an infringement on the clock and the court. I think that that’s the one that we all agree on. And we’ll see what happens.

We agreed to continue the conversation. There were different subgroups that were formed, and we all committed to remain connected so that we can work through these issues.

You’re close to state Attorney General Letitia James. Were you surprised to see her comments saying she wanted to address bail reform in the next session? Or was that taken out of context?

I believe that it was taken out of context. Again, we’re in the height of a political season. And so a lot of what is said is in sound bites. I just put it on that. And then we can have real conversations about policy once we move out of this political season.

Correction: An earlier version of this story left out a word due to a transcription error. Walker said “I don’t think that we’ll be able to really get into any real conversations around the issue until after the political season has come to a conclusion.”

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