Assemblyman Vanel passes sweeping criminal justice reforms to increase fairness, transparency

Includes measure to ‘Raise the Age,’ rehabilitate youth

Assemblyman Vanel (D-33) announced he helped pass a series of bills aimed at increasing fairness and transparency in the state’s criminal justice system. The legislation helps assure that young people charged with nonviolent offenses have a better chance to turn their lives around, prohibits racial and ethnic profiling and regulates the use of solitary confinement, among other important reforms.

“When many New Yorkers encounter the criminal justice system, they’re met with anything but justice,” said Vanel. “People of color are disproportionately targeted; the focus is on punishment instead of rehabilitation, and because of that, we see entirely too much recidivism. This has to change, and the time to do it is right now. The Assembly Majority’s reforms will help rebuild public trust with law enforcement and the courts, and promote a more equitable criminal justice system.”

Raise the age, restore hope

The legislative package includes a measure to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 and prohibit juvenile defendants from being placed in an adult facility (A.4876). New York is one of only two states that try all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.[1] By raising the age and treating nonviolent young people more appropriately, we can help give them a shot at a brighter future and increase public safety, noted Vanel. In addition, the measure mandates that more services be made available to children and families in the Family Court system.

Research has shown that treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults is counter-productive. With brains that are not yet fully developed, teenagers are more likely to make impulsive choices and not understand fully the possibly life-changing consequences of their actions. Moreover, young people incarcerated in adult facilities are more likely to be abused, far less likely to be rehabilitated and, consequently, are more likely to reoffend.[2],[3],[4]

“Treating kids like adults in the criminal justice system is wrong, it’s inhumane and it’s absolutely shameful,” said Vanel. “These children are in their formative years — we should be helping our troubled youth and teaching them valuable life skills if we want them to be productive members of society. We need to raise the age now.”

Improving state prison oversight

The Assembly passed legislation that would ban correction officers from placing inmates who are under age 18, are mentally ill or are living with a disability into special housing units (SHU) (A.1905). It would also ensure that solitary confinement is only used as a disciplinary measure of last resort, subject to review by the DOCCS commissioner and implemented for the minimal period necessary.

“Locking kids and those with disabilities in a small, dark room indefinitely is cruel and unusual punishment,” said Vanel. “Solitary confinement can have devastating long-term effects on a person. It breaks them down and can ruin them, and it’s about time we reform the way it’s used.”

Increasing fairness in court proceedings

The Assembly also passed a bill to increase transparency in grand jury proceedings. While records of such proceedings are generally kept confidential, the secrecy provisions of current law can lead to confusion and suspicion when a case is considered but an indictment is not issued. This bill would allow the news media and members of the public to access records of the charges submitted and legal instructions given to the grand jury in cases where the public is aware of the investigation, the identity of the suspect was generally known and there is public interest in disclosure (A.4877). The bill would also authorize the judge to be present in the grand jury room, and allow the judge to assign an interpreter for witnesses who are not fluent in English. This measure would increase confidence in the justice system, particularly in high-profile cases of great public interest, noted Vanel.

Another piece of legislation, known as Kalief’s Law, seeks to bring clarity to the speedy trial provisions of the state’s Criminal Procedure Law (A.3055-A). Under current statutes, prosecutors can declare that they are ready for trial and then seek an adjournment in court, effectively circumventing the timetable prescribed in state law. The bill is named for Kalief Browder, a young man whose court dates were repeatedly postponed during three years of pretrial incarceration. At age 16, Browder was sent to Rikers Island – where he spent two of his three years in solitary confinement – for robbery charges that were later dismissed. Following his release, he struggled with mental illness and committed suicide in 2015.[5]

The bill would permit the court to inquire as to whether the prosecution is, in fact, “ready for trial” when the prosecution claims readiness. Under the bill, at each court appearance the judge would make a preliminary ruling on whether the time moving forward to the next court appearance date would be excluded or included in the speedy trial time for the overall case. In making such determination, the court would not be permitted to use “court congestion” as a basis for further delay. Additionally, the prosecution cannot truly be “ready for trial” unless required disclosure of evidence has been made and unless a proper accusatory instrument has been filed. As people sit in jail waiting for a court date that is being unnecessarily postponed, they’re losing their jobs, their homes and their families. A prompt trial is in everyone’s interest, noted Vanel.

Further, to help curtail instances of erroneous arrest and wrongful conviction, the Assembly passed legislation to address the integrity of witness statements and require the recording of interrogations, in certain circumstances (A.4239). The measure implements new protocols for photo arrays and live lineups to protect against bias or influence and help ensure the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, which is essential to preventing miscarriages of justice, noted Vanel. Legislation was also passed reinforcing the power of the courts to compel, prior to trial, disclosure of information material to preparation by the defense, where the prosecution doesn’t plan to present such information at the trial (A.3056).

“These bills will help eliminate unnecessary delays in judicial proceedings and ensure the fundamental rights of the accused are upheld,” said Vanel.

Improving outcomes for those trying to start over

To help improve the prospects of gainful employment for those with a criminal conviction, the Assembly passed a bill to restrict employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until after a conditional offer of employment has been made (A.2343). This limited protocol does not apply where a criminal history background check is required by law. This measure will help prevent recidivism, facilitate re-entry into society and make it possible for those who have a conviction in their past to be considered for employment, noted Vanel.

The Assembly legislative package also includes a bill requiring the court to seal the records of a limited group of small-quantity marijuana convictions, where it was burning or open to public view. Current law allows sealing only in cases where the marijuana is in a private place and is not burning. The bill would also allow a person previously convicted of these charges to make a motion asking the court to seal the records of such a past offense (A.2142). The bill would also prevent the prosecution from seeking a waiver of sealing as part of a plea agreement. The individuals this measure helps aren’t violent criminals or a threat to society and shouldn’t have their lives upended because of a mere violation, noted Vanel.

In order to better address addiction and substance abuse in New York State, the Assembly passed a bill that would modify the eligibility criteria for treatment diversion, as a potential alternative to incarceration for those charged with certain crimes. This bill adds a few additional charges to the type of charges under which a person may be considered for diversion for treatment (A.4237). The bill also modifies the diversion criteria by replacing the term “abuse” with “use.” This is consistent with the terminology used in professional disciplines. This change would enable judges to consider diversion for treatment for those who use alcohol or drugs excessively, but may not yet be addicted.

“As our state grapples with a growing heroin epidemic, we must help more people get the treatment they need,” said Vanel. “Expanding access to a highly successful program like drug diversion is a good first step.”

Additionally, the Assembly passed a bill to moderate certain restrictions on charitable bail organizations. These nonprofit organizations, regulated by the state Insurance Department and recognized by law since 2012, can interview defendants and consider posting or assisting with cash bail for poor individuals in our criminal justice system. The bill would increase to $5,000 the maximum amount that could be posted per case and allow a contribution toward bail to be made in misdemeanor and felony cases (A.4880). The measure also would remove a geographic restriction that currently prevents such organizations from posting bail in more than one county.

“These organizations help reduce unnecessary pretrial incarceration and help assure that defendants participating in the program appear for all required court dates. This, in the end, helps keep families together and saves taxpayers money,” said Vanel.

Ensuring independent investigations into police misconduct

The Assembly reform package also included a bill that would establish an office within the Office of the Attorney General to investigate and, when appropriate, prosecute cases involving the death of a civilian after an encounter with a law enforcement official (A.5617). High-profile cases, such as the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 which concluded without charges being filed, have shaken public confidence in the ability of prosecutors to impartially handle these cases. Ensuring investigations into allegations of police misconduct are truly independent is essential to preserving public trust and the integrity of the justice system, noted Vanel.

Another measure would prohibit law enforcement agencies from engaging in racial or ethnic profiling. This measure would allow the attorney general, and those who had experienced such conduct, to seek an injunction in court against agencies to stop it (A.4879). The bill also requires police departments to collect data on their civilian encounters and implement procedures against racial and ethnic profiling designed to prevent it.

“Racial and ethnic profiling erodes trust in law enforcement, severely limits cooperation between police and the community and does nothing to keep our families safe,” said Vanel. “It’s both unconstitutional and morally wrong, and it needs to end.”