Cuomo Talks Justice Reform, But Clings to Archaic Knife Law

A law that results in disproportionate arrests and prosecutions of black and Latino New Yorkers will stand.

Cuomo Talks Justice Reform, But Clings to Archaic Knife Law

A law that results in disproportionate arrests and prosecutions of black and Latino New Yorkers will stand.

On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declined for a second time to approve bipartisan legislation that would have reformed a statute that currently outlaws gravity knives. The law in question, introduced in 1958, criminalizes the possession of a broad array of knives by defining “gravity knife” as any knife that can pop open with a flick of the wrist and locks into place — everything from standard pocket knives, to those used by construction workers and electricians, to larger lock-blade folding knives.

The proposed bill passed the Assembly in May by a vote of 136 to 1, and then the Senate by a vote of 61 to 1, before landing on Cuomo’s desk in June. Proponents of the vetoed bill have criticized the law’s overly-broad language, and point to the current law’s disproportionate use in the arrest and prosecution of thousands New Yorkers of color. Between July and December 2015, for example, the Legal Aid Society found 84 percent of their clients arrested for the possession of a gravity knife were black and or Latino.

In the face of numbers like these, Cuomo vetoed the bill safe with the knowledge that he had the support of numerous powerful New York City figures, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, all of city’s District Attorneys, and the New York Police Department. In a letter explaining his veto, Cuomo castigated the retooling of the state’s definition of gravity knife: “The Legislature has gone far beyond the innocent laborers carrying these knives for legitimate purposes and has grossly disregarded the concerns of law enforcement.”

Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance, in particular, has strongly opposed reforming the law, as reported extensively by The Village Voice. Gravity knife possession is prosecuted across the city as a misdemeanor, with a higher concentration of cases in the Bronx and Manhattan, according to the Legal Aid Society’s data. If a person caught with a gravity knife has been convicted of any previous crime, the law permits the penalty to be bumped up to a felony. In Manhattan, Vance increased gravity knife cases to felonies four times more frequently than all the other boroughs combined during that six month period, according to the Legal Aid Society.

Over the course of their time in public office, Cuomo, Vance, and de Blasio have all positioned themselves as progressives with varying degrees of commitment to reforming the state and city’s criminal justice systems. In March, Cuomo penned an editorial for USA Today with Cut50 founder Van Jones, calling for reform of a “justice system that’s failing the most vulnerable,” and criticizing that state’s frequent placement of 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult rather than juvenile justice system.

In 2016, Cuomo boasted that he would “go down in the history books as the governor who closed the most prisons in the history of the state of New York.” In 2017, he introduced and endorsed an ambitious set of goals to ensure speedy trial access and to overhaul the state’s bail system, among other reforms. De Blasio has vowed to close Rikers Island jail within ten years, and Vance has publicly lamented the crisis of mass incarceration.

All of this sounds promising. But Cuomo, de Blasio, and Vance’s staunch opposition to reform of the state’s antiquated knife law is squarely at odds with their allegedly progressive agendas. There is ample evidence that the statute in its current form leads to frequent arrests of working New Yorkers who pose no threat to public safety, and who carry knives for their jobs in fields that the city’s infrastructure relies on, such as construction and electric work.

Of all those prosecuted for gravity knife possession during the 6-month period documented by the Legal Aid Society, the charge of “intent to use a gravity knife unlawfully against another” was used in just five percent of cases. The numbers show this law isn’t making New Yorkers safer; it’s locking them up in the jails and prisons that the city’s progressive leaders allegedly want to close.

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