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NYC Mayor Remains Intent on Restricting Legal Help for Immigrants with Felony Convictions

Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses New Yorkers at a rally in Battery Park opposing President Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, the morning after a large-scale protest at John F. Kennedy Airport in January 2017.
NYC Mayor’s Office

NYC Mayor Remains Intent on Restricting Legal Help for Immigrants with Felony Convictions

Legal defense for immigrants has long been central to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s anti-Trump messaging. “We will use all the tools at our disposal to stand up for our people,” he assured immigrant New Yorkers during a high-profile speech at Cooper Union immediately following the 2016 election. His tone was similar during his 2018 executive budget announcement, when the mayor doubled funding for immigrant legal services to $31 million. “We need them to have some confidence that there will be support for them,” he said.

But his support doesn’t extend to all immigrants. As de Blasio first made clear last spring, he believes non-citizens convicted within the last five years of any of 170 felonies deemed “violent or serious” should be excluded from certain taxpayer-funded legal services, freeing up aid for the increasing number of vulnerable immigrants without criminal records. The same felonies — which include burglary and drug possession, as well as rape, murder, and arson — also exempt undocumented immigrants and green card holders from New York City’s sanctuary provisions.

“Those are all serious, and in many cases violent, crimes,” the mayor told The Appeal at an unrelated press conference Thursday. “I believe fundamentally that if someone has been convicted of one of those crimes, and we’re going to cooperate with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] in their deportation, then it is contradictory to say that we are then going to offer legal services. I won’t do it.”

During last year’s budget negotiations, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, immigrant rights groups, and public defenders opposed the so-called “criminal carve-out” as it pertained to the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP). The first-of-its-kind program, established in 2013 and almost entirely funded by the city, offers legal services for all immigrants in deportation proceedings, closing a legal loophole as the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee legal representation in immigration court. The debate over the carve-out was temporarily resolved last year when an anonymous donor provided $250,000 in unrestricted funds.

But this year, there’s no indication that the private donation will be renewed and the de Blasio administration has confirmed that the carve-out applies to all immigrant legal service contracts from FY 2018 forward. That includes help with citizenship, lawful permanent residency, and asylum through the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative; free legal consultations in multiple languages through Action NYC; and removal defense for adults and unaccompanied minors.

Critics say exempting immigrants with criminal records bolsters anti-immigrant stereotypes and undermines due process. “We know who generally has these criminal system interactions: low-income Black and brown people, people who are poor, who have mental illnesses,” says Nyasa Hickey, supervising attorney of the immigration practice at Brooklyn Defender Services. “With this carve-out the city is further exacerbating the perception that these individuals are less valued.”

And while City Hall insists the message has been consistent since last spring, public defenders told The Appeal that they did not know the carve-out would extend beyond NYIFUP to other contracts until December 2017. That month, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he considered the restrictions “common sense.”

At a budget hearing Monday, Acting Commissioner Bitta Mostofi of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs reiterated his logic. “These are certain individuals who the administration has determined pose a public safety risk for all New Yorkers,” she said. City Hall estimates that fewer than 10 percent of immigrant clients will be impacted by the carve-out.

But critics say the mayor’s restrictions go far beyond any actual public safety concern, particularly since the disqualifying crimes include charges like drug possession. Not only does the carve-out eliminate crucial services for some of their clients, they say, it could scare many more potential clients away from the community organizations set up to help them.

Houston Police Chief Who Called Michael Bennett ‘Morally Corrupt’ is Quiet on Police Brutality

NFL defensive lineman Michael Bennett
Jeffrey Beall / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Houston Police Chief Who Called Michael Bennett ‘Morally Corrupt’ is Quiet on Police Brutality

On Sept. 6, 2017, then-Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett penned a letter describing, in excruciating detail, how Las Vegas police officers physically assaulted him while investigating shots fired in the area of the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. According to Bennett, officers ordered him to the ground, placed a gun to his head, threatened to blow it off, and jammed a knee into Bennett’s back. “Las Vegas police officers singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he wrote. Bennett’s letter sparked another massive national conversation about racial profiling and police violence towards people of color.

Shortly thereafter, a Houston detective started investigating a seven-month-old incident purportedly involving Bennett. Police alleged that in February 2017, while trying to get onto the field at NRG Stadium to celebrate his brother’s Super Bowl win, Bennett shoved past two women, including a 66-year-old paraplegic woman in a wheelchair. According to the police, the women tried to stop Bennett from getting on the field, but he forced his way past them while shouting expletives, spraining the 66-year-old’s shoulder.

Police did not start their official investigation that night, or the next night, or even the next. They did not search for or talk to Bennett, even though they could have easily found him taking photos and giving interviews on the field. They did not take pictures of the complainant on the scene. Only in May — four months later and after memories had faded — did the case get assigned to the investigating detective. And only in September, after Bennett went public with his story about the state of policing in America, did the Houston Police Department actually start investigating the case.

Last Friday, over a year after the alleged incident and just before Bennett’s release of his book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, a Harris County grand jury issued an indictment charging Bennett with “injury to an elderly individual,” a third-degree felony that carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The basis for this potentially long sentence? “[P]ushing her arm and body with his hands.” Bennett turned himself in on Monday, and after being taken to the Harris County jail, posted a $10,000 bond.

Bennett’s supportersincluding Olympic medalist John Carlos and author Cornel West, have accused the police and District Attorney Kim Ogg of charging Bennett because he is a Black man who speaks his mind and regularly brings attention to issues of police brutality.

“Michael Bennett follows the long history and tradition of athlete activism, from working to transform the justice system to advocating for women’s rights,” Mike de la Rocha, co-founder of Revolve Impact, a social justice group, told The Appeal. “Legendary athletes such as Muhammad Ali and John Carlos were disparaged by many in their day for using their platform to speak out against racism and injustice. Unfortunately, the tactics of the past continue today as Michael is being vilified for speaking out.”

And there are serious reasons — even beyond the timing of the investigation and the indictment — for his supporters’ vocal concern.

For one thing, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo held what critics consideredan outrageous press conference on Friday, during which he called Bennett “morally corrupt” and “morally bankrupt.” The Texas Rules of Professional Responsibility require lawyers to refrain from public attacks on “the character” of a potential defendant — lest their statements poison the public perception and a jury pool — and they also require the DA, where “feasible,” to “make reasonable efforts to discourage [law enforcement] from making statements of that kind.” Either Ogg didn’t follow this rule, or Acevedo ignored her. Either way, critics say, the police chief should know better. Acevedo did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Appeal.

Acevedo also misrepresented the incident during his press conference, claiming that Bennett knocked the 66-year-old woman “on her butt.” That description seemed to surprise reporters. And it was false. Moments later, the detective on the case carefully walked back the claim, explaining that the woman sat in an 800-pound wheelchair that did not, in fact, fall or topple over. Bennett instead “pushed her back and kind of strained her shoulder,” the detective said.

Bennett’s supporters say Acevedo’s characterization of him as “morally bankrupt” is not just unfair, but wrong. Bennett runs free sports camps for underprivileged families, his foundation works to combat child obesity, and, in 2017, he pledged to donate all of his endorsement money to aid programs focused on communities of color and women of color.

Acevedo’s comments were particularly striking given that he has refrained from using such harsh language when describing other serious incidents — notably, those involving police use of force. In Austin, where he previously served as police chief, an eyewitness saw officers forcing a jogger to the ground after stopping her for jaywalking. Video then captured her screaming as they forced her, handcuffed, into the police car. But Acevedo was shockingly dismissive of public scrutiny of his officers: “Cops are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for controversy in Austin, Texas.” (He later apologized.)

Nor did Acevedo publicly lash out after several officers in Austin shoved a Black man to the ground and punched him, and then took another Black manto the ground for, again, jaywalking, an incident captured on video that went viral. Instead, Acevedo, at the recommendation of the Internal Affairs Division, eventually dismissed the complaint lodged against the officers. And when other officers got caught making a joke about rape in their police car, Acevedo suspended them briefly but stated that their “participation in an unprofessional and inappropriate conversation,” which he also characterized as “inappropriate humor,” was not reflective of [their] total work performance or work product.”

Acevedo himself has also come under fire. In 2004, he was accused by a female co-worker with whom he allegedly had an affair of taking naked photos of her and then showing them to his co-workers. The woman sued, and the two settled out of court. (Acevedo has claimed this was a smear campaign.)

Acevedo aside, the district attorney’s behavior in this case has also raised concerns that law enforcement is singling out Bennett. District attorneys have enormous discretion. They can always dismiss a case if they decide it’s a waste of resources and the suspect isn’t dangerous — a label that many say obviously fits Bennett given that no one rushed to arrest him for 14 months. Here, the DA could have easily charged the case as a misdemeanor assault, an offense carrying a penalty of up to one year in jail and no more than a $4,000 fine. But instead, Ogg’s office requested an enhanced charge — injury to the elderly — which would result in a felony conviction and up to a 10-year prison term. Her office did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

There is much about this case that remains uncertain. The public does not have access to the medical records or police report. And critically, the defense is just starting its own investigation — albeit one hampered by the passage of time. But one thing is certain, critics say: This is not a normal case, and like many Black men in the justice system, Michael Bennett is not getting a fair shot.

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Can Police Opposition Overturn Parole Reform?

courtesy of Release Aging People in Prison

Can Police Opposition Overturn Parole Reform?

On March 14, Herman Bell learned that after 45 years behind bars, he would soon be released from prison. The 70-year-old former Black Panther was convicted in the 1971 shooting deaths of two New York police officers. Since 2004, he appeared before the state’s parole board seven times; each time, he was denied parole because of the nature of his crime.

“There was nothing political about the act, as much as I thought at the time,” Bell said during his March 1 interview with the parole board. “It was murder and horribly wrong … It was horrible, something that I did, and feel great remorse for having done it.”

Though the parole board said that Bell’s crime “represents one of the most supreme assaults upon society,” two of the three commissioners nonetheless voted to grant Bell parole. In their vote, they cited his age, near-perfect prison record, college degrees, wide network of supporters and, perhaps most significantly, a letter of support from Waverly Jones Jr., the son of one of the slain officers. “The simple answer is it would bring joy and peace as we have already forgiven Herman Bell publicly,” Jones wrote in his letter to the board. “On the other hand, to deny him parole again would cause us pain as we are reminded of the painful episode each time he appears before the board.”

Bell’s parole comes after years of advocacy by formerly incarcerated people, their family members, and activists to change the state’s parole process. In 2011, an executive law directed parole commissioners to assess a defendant’s probability of recidivating rather than basing a decision on the nature of the crime. But in the following years, commissioners continued to hold 10-minute hearings before denying parole based on the defendant’s crime rather than their rehabilitative efforts in prison. That’s what happened to 70-year-old John MacKenzie in 2016 when he was denied parole during his 10th hearing; nine days later, he died by suicide, becoming a symbol of what critics called a “broken” parole system.

Advocates, including formerly incarcerated people who faced multiple parole denials, have pushed to change the composition of the parole board. Because commissioners are appointed by New York’s governor for six-year terms, advocates pressed Governor Andrew Cuomo not to reappoint commissioners with punitive track records; they also urged him to appoint commissioners with backgrounds outside of law enforcement. (Potential commissioners must have a college degree and five years’ experience in criminal justice, sociology, law, social work, or medicine.)

Advocates also pushed for changes to parole regulations, which now require the board to issue individualized reasons for denial.

In June, Cuomo chose not to reappoint three commissioners and appointed six new commissioners. Since then, says Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law, parole hearings last longer than 10 minutes, commissioners’ questions have focused more on the defendant’s rehabilitation, and release rates have increased. In the following months, parole approvals rose from 24 percent to 37 percent. Two of these new commissioners served on Bell’s parole panel (though only one voted for his release).

Unsurprisingly, the decision to parole Bell has been blasted by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD commissioner, Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Diane Piagentini, the widow of the other slain officer in the case. The PBA, along with several Republican lawmakers, are demanding that Cuomo fire the commissioners who approved Bell’s parole. Cuomo’s office has not returned a request for comment about these demands.

And even though the parole board voted to grant Bell his freedom, they can still rescind his parole should information emerge that commissioners had not been presented. That’s what happened to 58-year-old Shua’Aib A. Raheem who was sentenced to 25 years to life for a 1973 shooting in which one police officer was killed and two others wounded. In 2007, after Raheem was granted parole during his sixth hearing, the PBA fought to allow one of the injured officers and family members of the dead officer to submit victim impact statements. At a rescission hearing, the board rescinded his release. Raheem spent another three years in prison before being released on parole after another hearing in 2010.

Zeidman, however, cautions that such rescissions are rare; he told The Appeal that he can count the number of rescissions he’s seen in his 25-year career on one hand. Opponents can go to court to block Bell’s release, said Zeidman, but they are unlikely to find any relief. Indeed, in December 2017, the New York State Troopers’ Union filed a lawsuit to block the release of 74-year-old John Ruzas, who had been imprisoned since 1975 for fatally shooting a state trooper and had been denied parole 10 times. The judge, however, dismissed the case and Ruzas was released that month.

Still, the backlash about the parole board’s vote on Bell — “Law Enforcement Rages Over Cop Killer’s Parole” blared a New York Post headline the day of the decision — could influence its future decisions, particularly regarding defendants convicted of murder. “The intent behind the pressure is to make people afraid” of granting parole in controversial cases, Zeidman noted. He points to the fallout following the 2003 parole of Kathy Boudin, a former Weather Underground member who participated in a 1981 robbery of a Brink’s truck that left a security guard and two police officers dead. The two commissioners who granted her freedom were not reappointed.

“It sends a message that, even if you follow the law, you’ll be fired if it’s an unpopular decision,” Bell’s attorney Bob Boyle told The Appeal.

Against the backdrop of such repercussions, “what the parole board did [in granting Bell parole] was courageous,” said criminal defense attorney Zeidman. “Most people would say that they just followed the law, and that’s true. But they haven’t been following the law before. And they knew that there was going to be this kind of backlash and this kind of attack.”

Waverly Jones Jr. wrote in a statement to the media that he, too, is concerned by the resistance parole commissioners have faced for their decisions. “Particularly upsetting is the attack on the Parole Commissioners who made the decision to release him,” Jones wrote. “The fact is that Mr. Bell has taken responsibility for his actions, has expressed genuine remorse, is 70 years-old,and has been in prison for 45 years. In these times of increased hate, we need more compassion and forgiveness.”

“There’s been a sea change,” reflected Zeidman. “Whether this [backlash] has the power to stop this in its tracks is what people are afraid of.”

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