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New York Democrats won big. Will they deliver big change?


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: New York Democrats won big. Will they deliver big change?

  • A year after police shot Calvin Toney, his family still doesn’t know what happened

  • When stealing Legos adds to a lifetime of consequences

  • States use secrecy laws to hide information about executions

  • Settlement to make life-saving Hepatitis C treatment available in Pennsylvania prisons

  • New report looks at how children are affected when their fathers are incarcerated

In the Spotlight

New York Democrats won big. Will they deliver big change?

On election night, New York became the site of a decisive Democratic win. The party now controls the state Senate by a large margin and for the first time in a decade, state government will be entirely under Democratic control. Despite being a famously blue state, this is actually an unusual moment in New York, where Democrats have held the governorship and had full control of the legislature at the same time for only a total of three years since World War II. Now they have the power to deliver on a host of progressive reforms, including criminal justice reforms, that are achievable at the state level. The question is whether they will. [Vivian Wang / New York Times]

Plenty of people are pushing them to. In the two weeks since the election, groups have begun calling for legislative reforms that will reverse the tough-on-crime policies that created a bloated and inhumane criminal legal system and have fed a terrifying federal deportation machinery. The list is long, a reflection of the many years of Republican control in the Senate when little far-reaching legislation was possible. And the efforts predate this election. Advocates and legislators worked to pass a series of bills in the Democrat-controlled State Assembly in the spring, laying the groundwork for legislation that could be passed by both houses and signed by the governor in the event of favorable election results.

Last week, the heads of New York City’s five largest public defender offices laid out their proposals for change in a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the likely Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Also last week, criminal justice activists rallied across the state calling for “real change” that would, as Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance said, “disrupt the status quo.” [Reuven Blau / New York Daily News]

The areas of reform encompass the front end to the back end and everything in between. On the front end, advocates are calling for measures to address police accountability; bail, speedy trial, and discovery reforms; and marijuana legalization. For years, NYPD officers have been shielded by Section 50-a of the State Civil Rights Law that the city and the police department argued prevented the release of disciplinary records. In a decision last spring that endorsed the city’s interpretation of 50-a, a Manhattan judge wrote that the remedy would have to “come from the legislature.” The provision attracted widespread scrutiny after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo and the city’s argument that it could not release Pantaleo’s disciplinary records because of the statute. [Ashley Southall / New York Times]

Advocates are also calling for of a ban on long-term solitary confinement (which passed the Assembly in the spring), expanded visits for people in prison, and a restoration of the free bus service for those visiting people in prison. As the costs of incarcerating older adults in New York continue to climb, there is a proposal to introduce the opportunity for parole release for those age 55 or over who have already served a decade and a half in prison.

And, as the Trump administration experiments with an array of exclusionary policies targeting immigrants, advocates in New York are calling for protections that would include reducing the maximum sentences for misdemeanor convictions by one day to prevent exposure to deportation. As ICE has made a practice of sending agents to courthouses to arrest people appearing as defendants, victims, plaintiffs, or witnesses in cases, one proposed solution is a requirement of a judicial warrant for any courthouse arrests carried out by ICE.  [Kenneth Lovett / New York Daily News]

The reality is that New York, rather than being a liberal beacon, has hung on to policies that have been revised and reversed in other parts of the country, including more conservative states. New York’s speedy-trial law offers little relief or protection to defendants incarcerated pretrial, as seen in the case of Kalief Browder. Thirty-five states have open discovery laws but New York’s law allows prosecutors to wait until the eve of trial to disclose crucial evidence, including police reports, witness statements, and the results of scientific testing. New York places people in solitary confinement at a rate that exceeds the national average. The letter from the public defenders references the many lost opportunities over the years: “Impacted communities and the greater public—your constituents—recognize the profound injustices that Albany has permitted to exist for decades, while other states have taken action to help fix the problems.” [Kenneth Lovett / New York Daily News]

Now, at a time when Republicans can’t seem to get out of their own way to enact even modest reforms at the federal level, Democrats in New York, after so long, have been given the power to enact laws that could make the state a progressive model. The organizers and advocates, who fought to get to this moment, will be watching. As Frederique of Drug Policy Alliance said at the rally last week: “We need to tear this whole system down. That happens with courage. That happens with fortitude. It happens with us.”

Stories From The Appeal

Pam Toney, 43, and her daughter, Kajala Toney, 20, search for answers in the shooting death
of Calvin in the courtyards and corridors of the Palms Apartments. [Clarissa Sosin]

A Year After Police Shot Calvin Toney, His Family Still Doesn’t Know What Happened. Baton Rouge residents say little has changed after Alton Sterling. [Clarissa Sosin and Daryl Khan]

When Stealing Legos Adds to a Lifetime of Consequences. A petition argues that people seeking to escape the sex offender registry, including those put on it as children, deserve more than a single shot. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg]

Stories From Around the Country

States use secrecy laws to hide information about executions: A new study by the Death Penalty Information Center looks at how states have used “an expanding veil of secrecy laws” to shield the execution process from public scrutiny as they experiment with new drug combinations. The study documents the extent to which states use secrecy laws “to conceal evidence that they have broken state and federal laws, deliberately induced contract breaches, lied to or misled legitimate drug suppliers, contracted with shady international suppliers and questionable domestic pharmacies, and swapped drugs with each other without proper storage and transport controls.” Thirteen states have enacted new secrecy statutes since 2011. All 17 states that carried out lethal-injection executions between Jan. 1, 2011, and Aug. 31, 2018, withheld at least some information about the execution process. All but one concealed information about the source of execution drugs. [Death Penalty Information Center]

Settlement to make life-saving Hepatitis C treatment available in Pennsylvania prisons: A settlement filed in a federal class-action lawsuit on Monday would guarantee access to Hepatitis C treatment for the approximately 5,000 incarcerated Pennsylvanians living with the disease. The anti-viral treatment has been shown to be effective in 95 percent of cases. Under the terms of the settlement, which awaits final approval from a judge, treatment would begin with the most advanced cases and extend to everyone with Hepatitis C in prison by 2022. The lawsuit began four years ago, on behalf of a number of plaintiffs including one whose disease worsened into advanced cirrhosis of the liver over the two years that he was denied treatment. Nationally, the rate of infection has hit a 15-year high. Given the prevalence of the disease among people in jails and prisons—and then among those re-entering the community—one expert told the Philadelphia Inquirer that treatment for incarcerated people is a public-health opportunity. Massachusetts, California, and Florida already guarantee some Hepatitis C treatment in prison. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer]

New report looks at how children are affected when their fathers are incarcerated: More than 2.7 million children have a parent in prison or jail and many more have experienced this. A new brief from the Urban Institute looks at how children experience a father’s re-entry, to understand how the negative effects of parental incarceration persist even after the period of incarceration is over. Researchers found that boys, particularly if they are Black or Latinx, suffer negative emotional consequences from having an incarcerated father both during the period of incarceration and for several years after their fathers are released. The authors call for more research “on how parental incarceration affects children and how the effects might persist” to design better services for returning citizens and their children. They also ask whether current sentencing policies “sufficiently consider the full costs and consequences, including disproportionate harm by race or ethnicity, on children, families, and society.” [Urban Institute]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

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