Alessandra Biaggi, Zellnor Myrie, and Jessica Ramos, here on the front row at a March 2018 rally, are first-term senators who all voted against S7506B. (Alessandra Biaggi/Facebook)

Alessandra Biaggi warns that New York’s budget could harm those most endangered by COVID-19, and calls for more help for people on Rikers. “What we’re going to be judged by is how we protected those who are the most vulnerable,” the Democratic lawmaker said in a Q&A.

Last week, while other states considered how to protect people losing healthcare coverage and how to decarcerate in light of COVID-19 dangers, New York took steps in the opposite direction.

Its 2020 budget, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, cuts billions from the Medicaid program, which covers low-income New Yorkers, including slashing payments to hospitals. It also rolls back last year’s landmark bail and discovery reforms, which law enforcement groups kept combating after their passage; it expands the cases in which judges can keep people detained pretrial, and loosens the requirement that prosecutors promptly hand over discovery material with defense counsels.

Some progressive lawmakers fought the bill in the broader budget package that dealt with these measures (Assembly Bill A9506B/Senate Bill 7506B). Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou denounced it as an “austerity budget” in a floor speech. “This pandemic has put a harsh spotlight on a reality in which not enough has changed to meet the needs of today,” she said.

Still, these measures were passed on the strength of the legislature’s Democratic majorities. The budget was negotiated between Cuomo, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, all of whom are Democrats. GOP lawmakers opposed it.

The emerging ideological fault lines within the Democratic Party were on display. A quarter of Democratic Assemblymembers opposed this bill.

In the Senate, only five Democrats out of 40 voted against SB 7506B. All five of these senators joined the legislature after successfully challenging incumbents from the left in Democratic primaries. All but one did so in 2018, the state’s most recent legislative cycle.

Three of the five—Alessandra Biaggi, Zellnor Myrie, and Jessica Ramos—won that year by ousting former members of the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC), a group of lawmakers who chose to caucus with the GOP and who by and large supported tougher-on-crime bills. When I asked Biaggi and Myrie about their goals shortly after their wins, both mentioned bail reform, and last week both voted to preserve the changes made in 2019. A fourth, Julia Salazar, won in 2018 with the support of Democratic Socialists of America. The fifth, Gustavo Rivera, ousted an incumbent who was a member of an IDC-like group back in 2010. 

This week, I talked to Biaggi about why she voted against S7506B and about her concerns regarding the state cutting Medicaid and rolling back criminal justice reforms. The Q&A is available below.

Biaggi, who represents parts of Bronx and Westchester counties, denounced the budget’s “fundamental failure and injustice.” She also made the case that it would harm New Yorkers already most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Regarding Medicaid, she explained that her Bronx constituents already face higher rates of medical issues, and will suffer from cuts to public spending. 

“All that we had to do was ask the ultra-millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more so that we could prioritize communities in our state that have been hurt the most, the most vulnerable,” she argued, alluding to the decision to keep education funding flat. Cuomo has said New York faces fiscal difficulties, but he resisted proposals to raise revenue by taxing the ultrawealthy, for instance through a pied-à-terre tax. 

With the bail reform retreat, Biaggi regretted that more people will be detained, including over low-level offenses, if they are deemed to be “repeat offenders.” She also criticized the decision to loosen discovery reform. “Pulling that ripcord while we’re trying to inform our constituents and community does not do justice to the ultimate outcome that we hope to see,” she said, “which is a reduction of people going to jail in communities of color, in low-income communities, and of the criminalization of poverty.”

Michael Gianaris, a Democratic senator who represents parts of Queens and was the architect of the 2019 bail reform law, voted in favor of S7506B.

“I am not happy with the bail changes, which were included in a state budget bill controlled by the Governor,” Gianaris said in a written statement through a spokesperson when asked for his views on the bill’s bail component. “The changes ultimately approved would have been far worse if earlier drafts pushed by reform opponents were enacted. We successfully pushed back against some of their worst elements.” 

According to the Queens Eagle, reform advocates were frustrated by Gianaris’s silence earlier this year, when opponents of bail reform were battering the changes; in March, he did not join a letter signed by 40 other lawmakers who warned that “bail reform rollbacks … are especially irresponsible at a time when they would exacerbate a public health crisis.” 

Biaggi, whose district contains the Rikers Island complex, signed that letter. She told me this week that she is concerned that the pandemic could still be raging when this new law goes into effect, putting more people in jail at the worst possible time. Instead, she wants New York officials to urgently reduce the population held on Rikers, where a public health catastrophe is underway. When Biaggi called for higher-risk people to be released from Rikers mid-March, there were two confirmed cases there. There are now more than 200.

“When we look back on this time, what we’re going to be judged by is how we protected those who are the most vulnerable, and this population falls in that category,” she said.

The Q&A was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You were one of five Democratic senators to oppose the portion of New York’s budget that made some significant spending cuts and touched on criminal justice issues. What were the important factors in your vote?

This year, the Education, Labor and Family Assistance budget bill, commonly referred to as ELFA, was the equivalent of what they call the “big ugly.” This was the bill that I think epitomized the fundamental failure and injustice of the whole entire budget for this year. It included flat levels of funding for our schools, rolling back the transformational change that we made to the criminal justice system last year, to bail and discovery, and then the cuts to Medicaid in the billions, while failing to consider revenue raisers. Collectively this epitomized negligence. 

The budget is a reflection of our values and our priorities as a state. All that we had to do was ask the ultra millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more so that we could prioritize communities in our state that have been hurt the most, the most vulnerable. And yet what we did was not only not revenue raisers, but we made cuts. 

I’m very proud of my “no” vote on the ELFA bill. It was not an easy decision to make because there were things in the bill of course that I cared about, like surrogacy that I had fought really hard for. But at the end of the day, when you are weighing all of these very important issues, you have to look at the scale and where it balances toward. 

Many who watched the budget unfold were taken aback by the choice to cut Medicaid in the midst of a health crisis. How do you view this choice and the impact it could have?

The cuts were framed as savings. It’s not about savings. It’s about making cuts to hospitals during a pandemic. When we think about the Medicaid cuts, MRT2, which is the Medicaid Redesign Team 2, they are going to hurt the most vulnerable. The cuts that are being made are to the indigent care pool hospitals, which are the hospitals that are the ones who help those who are Medicaid recipients or those who don’t have health insurance. 

I represent the Bronx and Westchester County, and the Bronx has been 62 out of 62 [counties] for health outcomes. The highest rates of asthma, diabetes, hypertension, all are in the Bronx. In fact, some of the highest rates of asthma are in the South Bronx, which is in District 34. Those underlying conditions and potential comorbidities, if someone does contract COVID-19, will mean that those who suffer from those underlying conditions will be more likely to die. 

Lastly, there was a portion of the budget for MRT2 that directly impacts so many providers in my district. It cuts the 340D pharmacy program, which allows providers to provide medication and services to low-income Bronxites. It basically serves Medicaid patients. The fact that we would do that in a time like this is just unconscionable. 

You supported bail reform in 2018, and then in the legislature. What is your assessment on how bail reform was implemented this year, and what worries you about this rollback?

The changes made to bail this year did nothing to address the underlying injustice that is inherent to cash bail: Cash bail inherently is unjust. It allows for those with means to not go to jail while they’re waiting for their trial, and to actually not have to sit in jail, and those without means to have to sit in jail. Let’s be very clear that the system of cash bail criminalizes poverty, period. There’s no other way to look at it. 

Last year, when we passed our criminal justice reforms, not only was I so proud to vote for it, but I was especially proud because I also represent Rikers Island. When we look at the bail piece, when we look at the reforms of the discovery system, we’re trying to even the playing field and balance the scales of justice. 

I felt very disappointed this year because the rollbacks were, I felt, very unjust. These reforms, in my opinion, will have negative impacts to places that I represent, which includes the Bronx, Mount Vernon, and other areas that have historically have had high rates of incarceration. 

When we look at what we did this year, it’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities of the various crimes that were added. The reality is that what we did was we allowed for, quote unquote, repeat offenders to be criminalized for things that are the equivalent of what Kalief Browder went to Rikers Island for. I specifically asked the question, “If I were to steal a backpack one time, and then I was to steal a backpack a second time, would I end up in Rikers,” and the answer was yes. Even though that’s not the necessary equivalent of what he was accused of having done, even though he did not do that, the point I was trying to make was why are we rolling back the very thing that we literally stood on bail reform for. It does not make any sense. 

The repeat offenders piece of this budget allows the judge to request bail if someone was arrested for what’s called a Class A misdemeanor or felony while they’re on release for a different Class A misdemeanor and felony, if both crimes caused harm to a person or property. Theft of a backpack or graffiti includes that class of things. I really feel that is inherently in opposition to what we are trying to accomplish. What we will see is that the 90 percent number [of people who get released pretrial] will decrease. I don’t know how much, but it will I think significantly because it’s very easy to hold someone accountable for these types of things, graffiti, theft of a loaf of bread.

Bail reform was a celebrated accomplishment in 2019, just a year ago, and it was only implemented in January. The pushback and concessions were nearly immediate. How do you explain this change?

What we did last year was so monumental and was such a long time coming. What happened in January, and the months leading up to that, was really just a narrative war, communications war, that we lost. We still to this day don’t know all the data of what exactly the reforms have done or have impacted. When we look at what the system has done historically in New York and the United States, there is still a significant number of people who don’t understand what criminal justice reform is. So it takes time to educate people. It takes time to humanize issues that people may never have experienced in their lives. And from January to March, when the law was effective, we didn’t even have the sufficient time to do all of that education. Now, one could argue that last year from March until January, we could have done that, and a lot of us did. But this kind of change, this systematic fundamental change takes time. 

Pulling that ripcord while we’re trying to inform our constituents and community does not do justice to the ultimate outcome that we hope to see, which is a reduction of people going to jail in communities of color, in low income communities, and of the criminalization of poverty. 

I look at that portion of the budget and I think about the moment that we’re in, which is a pandemic. We have seen hundreds of people test positive at Rikers Island. What we are going to see after the laws take effect in 90 days is an increase in our jail population. And we cannot be assured that the pandemic is going to have come and gone by the time these laws take effect. 

Three weeks ago, you wrote a letter that called on New York to adopt emergency measures to release people from Rikers Island. There are now hundreds more confirmed COVID-19 cases than then. What do you think of  the management of this Rikers crisis, and what can still be done to protect people?

Continuing testing is important, although it’s not determinative. I have called for a testing site to be placed on Rikers Island specifically for inmates as well as for the corrections officers that have called for increased doctors, as well as health options for those who are in Rikers. Now I have to just say that I’ve been told that there is adequate health care for individuals or inmates who are experiencing symptoms, that they’re placing certain individuals of symptoms into a certain area. But we have already lost the first person incarcerated at Rikers to COVID-19. His name is Michael Tyson, he was 53 years old. He was held at Rikers Island for a technical parole violation, a whole other injustice we could probably spend another day talking about. His death will not be the last. 

There is, again, no reason why those who are part of this vulnerable population who are in Rikers Island awaiting trial should be in Rikers Island at this time. It is dangerous, not only to others who are there, it is dangerous to the corrections officers, it is dangerous to our society, and it is dangerous to New York to really continue to allow this to happen. 

I called in a letter with others I serve with to relieve the vulnerable populations that are in Rikers. The mayor’s office has begun to do that, the governor’s office, I believe, has also worked with the mayor’s office to do that. But it’s not enough. If you’re looking at what the doctors or scientists are saying, they’re saying that self isolation and quarantine is one of the ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19. A jail is the complete antithesis of what doctors and scientists are calling for. That was part of the equation as to why I made the decision to write that letter. 

When we look back on this time, what we’re going to be judged by is how we protected those who are the most vulnerable, and this population falls in that category. So I will continue, not only because of my responsibility as the state senator for Rikers Island but as a human being in this moment, to just acknowledge the fact that these are people who don’t have a voice and it is our responsibility to provide that for them.