New York officials have renewed their efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system in recent years, including raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and targeting bail procedures that many have criticized as unfair.
These issues mark the latest battles in broader struggle over criminal justice policies that goes back at least as far as the fight over the Rockefeller drug laws.
“In the beginning, quite frankly, it was really just me,” Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry said of his yearslong effort to reform the state’s harsh drug laws, which were enacted under then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
Aubry was a teacher at the New Mexico State Penitentiary after graduating from the College of Santa Fe in 1969, and points to that experience as one of the reasons why he became engaged on criminal justice matters.
“You specifically see the injustice of the system when you go inside of a prison,” he said. Later in his political career, as an assemblyman from Queens, he became the leader of the effort to repeal the state’s Rockefeller drug laws, an effort that culminated in 2009. The changes included the removal of mandatory minimum prison sentences and allowed judges to sentence substance abuse treatment instead of prison.
However, Aubry did not accomplish that without support of others.
“As the momentum built,” he said, “other people joined on.” In particular, state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and then-Assemblyman Keith Wright were part of the effort that led to the passage of that legislation, he said.
Aubry said the tactics used to push for change “around drug laws seemed to involve more street action: rallies, protests, that kind of thing, on a more consistent basis ... around the state, not necessarily just centered in the city of New York.”
Now, younger state lawmakers on the front lines of the current criminal justice reform debates can look to their experienced elders for advice. Aubry said the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus is one space where lawmakers from different generations can share experiences, and where younger lawmakers “seek (them) out for counsel, to know what worked, what didn’t work.”
One of the younger lawmakers with a strong voice on criminal justice issues is state Sen. Jamaal Bailey. Bailey is a member of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, and has been involved with recent issues like changing the rules for the sharing of evidence, ensuring a speedy trial and Raise the Age – the successful effort to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. The state senator also recognized the role of the caucus in giving lawmakers an opportunity to discuss strategies.
“It’s interesting right, because you have … folks who have found a way to create a multigenerational strategy because these issues have been ramping in our communities for quite some time,” Bailey said. He also recognizes that “the vast majority, if not all of them, as an association, are truly concerned about criminal justice reforms.”
An important aspect in defining strategies and planning action is how the proposals are perceived by the population, and how to gain its support. For Aubry, that was one of the challenges.
“With the drug laws, you had to overcome not just legislative opposition, but you had to convince the community that this new way of looking at it was in their best interest too,” he said. That did not apply to reducing stop-and-frisk tactics by the NYPD and Raise the Age, Aubry added – “Those were already foregone conclusions in the community, that those were inappropriate policies that we were following.”
Now, decades after the Rockefeller drug laws were enacted, and almost a decade after they were reformed, public opinion and perception has changed dramatically. Bailey described the recent efforts and changes in criminal justice laws as “commonsense legislation – the criminal justice legislation should be fair.”
Bailey recognizes that there has been a change in strategy over the years. One of his proposals is to implement programs to prevent youth from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.
“The reform is not just the Rockefeller drug laws, it’s not just Raise the Age, discovery, bail reform or speedy trial,” Bailey said. “It’s the totality of the circumstances.”
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