City & State: New York needs a new criminal discovery law

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By Jamaal T. Bailey, Joseph Lentol - December 27, 2018

In August 2015, Terrell Gills was arraigned on charges for a crime that he did not commit. He spent the next 18 months of his life in jail because of New York’s antiquated discovery laws. If he were arrested almost anywhere else in the country, even in North Carolina or Texas, his defense team would have had access to basic evidence that would have proven his innocence and spared him jail time and a trial. The discovery procedures that allow this to happen to thousands of innocent New Yorkers are an abomination.

New York’s discovery procedures are outlined in a state law known as “The Blindfold Law,” and it allows district attorneys to withhold police reports, grand jury minutes, witness statements and other evidence until the day a trial actually begins. This law prevents defendants from fully understanding the cases being brought against them, let alone mounting a fair defense against those charges.

Last year, we introduced a bill (S8707/A4360A) that remedies the effects of this antiquated law by requiring prosecutors to turn over discoverable evidence to the defense in a timely manner. This isn’t a radical proposal – it’s a common-sense one that almost every other state in this country has adopted, shamefully leaving New York as one of only four states with such outdated and unjust procedures.

As was the case with so many sensible measures, the Republicans controlling the New York state Senate and the powerful District Attorneys Association of New York prevented our bill from advancing. With Democrats now in charge of the chamber, we have an opportunity to right this wrong.

When Gills was arrested, he was shocked to find out he was being accused of robbing a Dunkin’ Donuts in Queens. His bail was set at $10,000 and he spent the next 18 months on Rikers Island. Gills declined any plea, refusing to confess to a crime that he didn’t commit.

During that period, his defense attorneys at The Legal Aid Society learned of a string of Dunkin’ Donuts robberies at two additional franchise locations in Queens which occurred during the same week that Gills was arrested.

Gills’ attorneys repeatedly asked the prosecutor for information about the other two robberies, but each request was stonewalled. Finally, in February 2017, Gills got a break. The DA disclosed that a different person had been arrested for the other robberies and had pleaded guilty in January 2016. This person eventually confessed to the robbery for which Gills was charged.

Had the prosecutors disclosed this critical information about the other robberies to the defense early in the case, Gills’ nightmare could have ended sooner. But New York’s discovery law allowed prosecutors to withhold key evidence until the last second, blindfolding the defendant, and preventing him from defending himself against false charges without languishing in jail for a year and a half.

New York finally has a chance to catch up with so many other states and cities by instituting overdue reforms to its discovery procedures. We need a statewide, uniform model for these procedures that provides defendants timely access to all the evidence. Without such reforms, we will continue to see New Yorkers like Terrell Gills face wrongful charges, trials and even convictions.

Legal Aid Society Announces “Let Them Read” - a Campaign to Empower Young New Yorkers With Books at Local Courts 

In Collaboration With Penguin Random House, Initiative Will First Pilot in Brooklyn With Goal of Expanding Citywide

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The Legal Aid Society announced today a new campaign with the support of book publisher Penguin Random House today. Let Them Read will bring books into the courtroom for young New Yorkers to read while they wait for their cases to be called.

For decades, courts in New York City have arbitrarily prohibited local residents from reading books in court – even as they languish long hours to have their case heard before a judge. Now, Legal Aid clients and others in Brooklyn’s Adolescent and Young Adult Diversion (APY2) court will have direct access to books from a courtroom bookshelf, and can keep the books if they want. The current bookshelf holds close to 200 books; and hundreds have already been taken home by Legal Aid clients and others.

Brooklyn APY court serves clients age 16-24, and was created to offer alternatives to incarceration so as to limit future contact with the criminal justice system. Many clients must miss school to appear in this part during the week. This might be the only opportunity they get to read.

Some of the books already provided by Penguin Random House include:

Over the course of two years to solidify this pilot and bring it to fruition, The Legal Aid Society worked closely with Judge Craig Walker - former presiding Judge of APY - the Office of Court Administration, and others.

“Giving someone a book is giving them the opportunity to learn something new. At any age, but especially during your adolescence, that knowledge has the power to change what you believe is possible not just for yourself, but also for the world to which you are connected. For our clients, this has a unique significance,” said Noor Ahmad, Staff Attorney the Brooklyn Trial Office at The Legal Aid Society. “We are excited to partner with Penguin Random House on this important pilot that will help to empower our young clients, and we look forward to the day when bookshelves are in every court part across New York City.”

Madeline McIntosh, Chief Executive Officer, Penguin Random House U.S., said, “We at Penguin Random House are so pleased to support the vital work of the Legal Aid Society and this very important pilot. We look forward to providing LAS with books for the collection at Brooklyn’s Youth Court and other libraries, and to connecting the young people they represent with books that we hope will inform, entertain and inspire.”

“What better way to help stimulate a mind in a positive way than to provide a book. It may seem like a small and meaningless gesture to some, but if we want these young people to aspire to do better, we need to provide them with the right tools in order for them to achieve their goals. That starts right there, in the Courtroom. I only hope that this can be a model that other courtrooms might start using in the future,” said Hon. Craig S. Walker, Presiding Judge of the Criminal Term Youth Part, Kings County Supreme Court.

NY Daily News: EXCLUSIVE: Relatives of those who died at hands of police push for repeal of NYS law shielding release of cop disciplinary records

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Mary Altaffer / AP)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Mary Altaffer / AP)

Citing the recent case in which officers ripped a baby from a woman’s arms while arresting her, the relatives of 16 people killed by police are seeking passage of a bill requiring the NYPD to publicly release officer disciplinary records.

The relatives as well as 85 organizations supporting them sent a letter to Gov. Cuomo and state legislative leaders calling for a full repeal of the four-decade-old 50a provision of civil service law that shields the release of the police and firefighter disciplinary records.

Simply amending the law is not enough, the coalition, calling itself Communities United for Police Reform, wrote.

In the letter sent to Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the coalition argues “the crisis of police misconduct and systemic lack of consequences and accountability for police brutality and unjust police killings of civilians has gained increased national attention in recent years.”

The letter cites the recent case of Jazmine Headley, the 23-year-old Brooklyn woman who had her baby ripped from her arms during a clash with NYPD and city Human Resources Administration officers at a public benefits office in Brooklyn that was caught on video that went viral.

The coalition says the NYPD has refused to release the names of the officers involved, which the letter says “makes the community less safe.”

With the city police unions opposing changes to the 50-a law, the measure has not cleared the Legislature in recent years when the Republicans controlled the state Senate.

Advocates are hoping that the Legislature will deal with the issue in the coming year as the Democrats are set to control both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in a decade.

The renewed push comes just weeks after the state’s top court upheld that even heavily redacted police disciplinary records can be hidden from public view.

Anything less than a full repeal would be a “waste of political capital” that would “provide a false sense of progress that would continue to protect abusive officers and departments,” the letter says.

“Transparency is a necessary and meaningful check on police abuse, whether by individual police or departments,” the letter concludes.

Among those signing the letter are Valarie Bell, whose son Sean Bell was killed by police in 2016, Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man killed in a police chokehold, and Kadiatou Diallo, who’s son Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times after police say they mistook his wallet for a gun.

Among the groups signing the letter are Amnesty International USA, the state Defenders Association, New York Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and the Legal Aid Society, which brought the most recent unsuccessful challenge to the law.

New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch accused the advocates of intentionally misleading lawmakers on the issue.

Lynch argued the 50a law is on par with those in 23 states and the District of Columbia and was created for reasons “that are as valid today as they were when it was signed into law.”

The law, he said, seeks to prevent “unscrupulous” defense lawyers from abusing access to discipline records in order to win acquittals and to keep criminals from identifying and locating officers in order to exact revenge for their arrests.

Agencies charged with overseeing the actions of police officers, including district attorneys and civilian review boards, have complete access to the records, Lynch added.

“Amending or repealing the law will have devastating effects on public safety and on the safety of all law enforcement officers throughout New York State,” he said.

Spokesmen for Cuomo, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins said they are open to addressing the issue in the coming legislative session.

“As we've previously said, we would be open to considering changes to the law,” said Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall.

Heastie spokesman Michael Whyland and Stewart-Cousins rep Mike Murphy said the leaders will discuss the issue with their respective conferences when they return to Albany for the new legislative session that begins in January.

Times Union: DNA scrutiny of relatives faces legal challenge

The search for the killer of a 30-year-old woman who was raped and strangled while jogging in Queens in August 2016 had stalled.

Police had found traces of the killer’s DNA on the battered body of Karina Vetrano, but it did not match any of the more than 600,000 DNA profiles on file in the state’s database -- samples taken from evidence collected of unsolved crimes and also people convicted of offenses ranging from misdemeanors to murder.

On Dec. 7, 2016, Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown wrote a letter to the chairman of New York’s Commission on Forensic Science, imploring the commission to authorize the use of a technique called “familial searching,” in which the state’s DNA database would be searched for profiles of potential relatives of the unknown suspect.

“The killer remains at large, the public remains in danger, and the suffering of the victim’s family is amplified by law enforcement’s inability to yet solve this most awful crime,” Brown wrote. “I believe the familial searching can be a powerful investigative tool in this case.”

The search technique, approved in a dozen states but, at the time of Brown’s request, not New York, was not used and played no role in the February 2017 arrest of 22-year-old Chanel Lewis of Brooklyn, who was charged with Vetrano’s murder. His trial ended with a hung jury — despite what prosecutors claimed was irrefutable DNA evidence — and he remains jailed awaiting a retrial. But Brown’s request set in motion an effort by the state forensic science commission that would lead it to implement a controversial new regulation allowing familial DNA searches.

The Legal Aid Society, which represented Lewis at his first trial, is waging a legal fight to halt the state’s use of familial searches. The society argues that the commission had no authority to pass the regulation and that such searches will lead to a disproportionate number of minorities being subjected to police encounters, simply because their DNA may be similar to someone in the databank’s.

A state Supreme Court justice in New York City heard oral arguments last week in a case filed in February by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of two downstate men who have never been arrested but whose relatives have been convicted of crimes that resulted in their DNA being added to the databank.

The lawsuit asserts that the Legislature has never ceded its control of the DNA databank, which was created by statute in 1994, and has rejected proposed bills to authorize familial DNA searches, a technique that has been legalized in states such as California and Colorado.

People convicted of certain crimes in New York are required to provide a sample of their DNA, which is then added to the state’s massive databank. When it was first created, the Legislature mandated only that those convicted of murder, assault or sexual offenses were required to provide their DNA. But through the years the Legislature has tweaked the statute and now samples must be provided even by those convicted of misdemeanor offenses.

The familial searches entail comparing the DNA of an unknown suspect — obtained from evidence such as a strand of hair or bodily fluids — to the 681,001 DNA samples currently in the databank. Investigators and law enforcement authorities say the hope is that an unknown suspect’s DNA may be linked to a relative whose identity is known, providing a lead that might otherwise never surface.

The legal challenge questions whether the privacy rights of New Yorkers are being violated, and challenges whether three executive branch agencies — the Division of Criminal Justice Services, the state Commission on Forensic Science and the commission’s DNA subcommittee — had the authority to create the regulation allowing familial DNA searches.

The lawsuit notes the familial search criteria set up by the regulation, which went into effect in October 2017, gave DCJS acting Commissioner Michael C. Green the sole authority to approve applications from police agencies to conduct familial DNA searches involving unsolved crimes.

The system “fails to ensure the most basic protections against abuse,” the lawsuit notes, adding that there is no judicial review of the process, no avenue for someone targeted to object to the DNA search and no notification to the public.

“Familial searching invites a broad new class of individuals to experience encounters with police — based solely on their biological relationship to individuals convicted of certain crimes,” the lawsuit states. “This new class of targets may be stopped and interrogated by police ... (and) subjected to scrutiny by law enforcement for no other reason than the possibility that their genes are similar to those of a data-banked individual.”

The legal petition outlines how the state Legislature — which had failed repeatedly to pass legislation that would have granted the executive agencies the authority to authorize familial searches — was debating the very issue last year when DCJS and the forensic science commission took the extraordinary step of authorizing the regulation on their own.

At a forensic science commission meeting last week, state officials reported that Green, a former Monroe County district attorney and chairman of the forensic science commission, has reviewed 23 requests from law enforcement agencies seeking to use the familial DNA searches. Twelve were approved by Green, seven remain in the review stage, and four were rejected.

Details about the specific cases, including which police agencies requested the searches, were not provided to the commission at its public meeting.

“It’s unfair, unconstitutional and it violates equal protection,” said Terri S. Rosenblatt, an attorney in the Legal Aid Society’s DNA unit. “This is a job for the people who are accountable to the voters, and the people who made these rules are not accountable to the voters.”

The 14 members of the Commission on Forensic Science include a judge and two criminal defense attorneys, but it has multiple crime laboratory scientists and law enforcement officials, including Green, State Police Superintendent George P. Beach II, and district attorneys William Fitzpatrick of Onondaga County and Scott McNamara of Oneida County.

Green, who has been DCJS’ acting commissioner since 2012, declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a court filing in response to the lawsuit, Green said that in 2010 the forensic science commission, DNA subcommittee and DCJS approved a regulation allowing scientists to explore “partial matches,” which occur “inadvertently” and indicate that a suspect may be a close blood relative of someone whose DNA is on file in the databank.

Since then, he said, there have been 92 instances in which a potential partial match was identified. In one of those cases, Green said, a partial match to a man whose DNA was in the system for a low-level offense led detectives to focus on and eventually arrest his brother, John Bittrolff, 52, who was convicted last year of murdering two women on Long Island in the 1990s.

Green’s court filing failed to disclose that there had been serious internal problems in the handling of that case. A DNA “hit coordinator” for DCJS had falsified a document certifying the laboratory results associated with the high-profile case, according to the agency’s former forensic science director and an inspector general’s report obtained by the Times Union. The document was later corrected and, according to law enforcement, disclosed to Bittrolff’s attorney, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Both DCJS and the office of Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott, which investigated the allegation, kept the matter quiet and the female employee was suspended and subsequently retired.

Brian J. Gestring, the former forensic science director at DCJS, wrote a letter to the Commission on Forensic Science earlier this year and accused Green of lying to the panel about the agency’s work in that case and others during a March meeting.

Gestring, who was fired this year after an allegation that he made inappropriate comments to female colleagues, said Green had wrongly informed the committee that DCJS does not get involved in DNA identifications. In fact, Gestring said, DCJS employees are responsible for making the identifications based on the information provided by crime labs.

He said that Green also concealed from the committee that “he was aware of three catastrophic DNA hit-notification failures directly attributable to DCJS within the last year. In all three cases, the wrong individual’s name was reported on a DNA hit notification.”

Green, in a court document in the familial DNA lawsuit, defended the DCJS program and said that familial searching is simply a “statistical evaluation of near-matches to identify the potential relatives to the donor of the forensic sample.”

Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney, also defended the commission’s decision to enact the familial DNA-search regulation, saying it would be justified even if only a single rape or homicide is solved. He said the application process that Green oversees is rigorous, and assures that the familial searches would only be used to solve homicides or other violent felony offenses.

“Assuming you jump through all the hoops and DCJS approves the request, then (police) have to undergo a several-hour training program, so that you don’t have cops banging down the door and grabbing toothbrushes and combs from somebody’s house who might be totally innocent,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel very comfortable about the efficacy and legality of what we do.”

Rosenblatt asked why law enforcement officials, and all other New Yorkers, don’t put their DNA in the databank.

“We don’t because we value our privacy,” she said. “And particularly as New Yorkers, we have traditionally had a very protective view of our privacy.”

Rosenblatt said it’s troubling that there is no judicial oversight of the searches as there is for search warrants. Also, the regulation allows police agencies to apply for familial searches not only for crimes such as murder and sexual assault but also for any case that concerns “a significant public safety threat.”

She said that final clause allows Green and other law enforcement officials to subjectively determine what that means: “What if someone is sending anonymous complaint letters to the mayor? Is that a public safety threat?”

Also, “There has to be a showing that reasonable investigative efforts have been made, but that’s not defined,” Rosenblatt said. “They could have said ‘once all law enforcement efforts have been exhausted.’”

Patch.com: Landlord Forbids Holiday Party For Once-Homeless Kids: Advocates

By Kathleen Culliton - PROSPECT-LEFFERTS GARDENS, BROOKLYN

It's "How The Landlord Stole Christmas."

Barry Hers threatened to sue formerly homeless tenants, currently facing eviction after losing a lawsuit against him, if they held a kids' Christmas party in the lobby of 250 Clarkson Ave. Friday morning, advocates said.

"We were going to do a little something for kids because the whole year has been so stressful for them," said Flatbush Tenant Coalition organizer Estefania Trujillo.

"The tenants have gone through so much. It was just going to be a nice little event for the families."

Hers' attorney Nativ Winiarsky contacted the Legal Aid Society, which is representing the tenants as they battle to hold onto their homes in the former cluster site, to request more information about the party Thursday afternoon, Trujillo said.

"We'll just have Santa, have gifts in the lobby and leave," the advocates told Hers' attorneys. "We were going to do a little something for kids."

But Winiarsky told residents the party would violate a standing court order, issued after a Christmas party in 2015, which bans any event that might block the entrance to 250 Clarkson Ave., the attorney said.

"It's a fire hazard," Winiarsky said. "There can be no gathering in the lobby."

Said Trujillo, "It's frustrating that we can't even do something nice."

The move comes amid a complex legal battle that has left 60 formerly homeless families unsure whether they'll be evicted from their Brooklyn homes over the holidays, said advocates.

A judge ruled in November that the residents were not protected by rent stabilization laws, and therefore could be evicted, but Legal Aid Society attorneys requested a stay on the decision on Dec. 17 so they could file an appeal.

"The judge reserved his decision for a later, unspecified date," advocates said. "The families don't know whether they will be evicted during the holiday season."

Rather than risk yet another day in court, the Flatbush Tenants Coalition will host the holiday party Friday evening in their Washington Avenue offices, Trujillo said.

The group spent hours Thursday night dashing between Hers' multiple Brooklyn buildings, posting fliers to let residents know about the change of plans.

What hasn't changed is the party itself. There will be pizza, Santa, presents for the kids, and a much-needed break from their ongoing battle for their homes, she said.

"This is gonna be moment when we don't have to think about the case," said Trujillo. "We're just going celebrate what we have been able to do so far."

Gothamist: De Blasio Hops On The Marijuana Legalization Bandwagon

Mayor Bill de Blasio with his wife Chirlane McCray, announcing his support of marijuana legalization in Washington Heights (Michael Appleton / Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio with his wife Chirlane McCray, announcing his support of marijuana legalization in Washington Heights (Michael Appleton / Mayor's Office)

After years of opposing marijuana legalization, Mayor Bill de Blasio joined the vast majority of his fellow Democrats and 62 percent of Americans by throwing his support behind the measure on Thursday morning.

"Change must happen and it must happen the right way. That is the essence of what I feel," de Blasio said at a press conference in a Washington Heights community center to mark the release of a report from The Mayor's Office on Cannabis Legalization. "The time has come to rewrite the rules, to break the mold of the past, to repair and redeem the lives of people who were treated unjustly."

Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that marijuana legalization is one of his top priorities for 2019, several months after his own report justifying the legalization of marijuana was released.

In explaining his delay, de Blasio said that New York City is a "more complex more difficult place than anywhere else."

"I've been very public about the fact that, you know, I cant even remember whether I inhaled because it was so long ago. I tried marijuana in college, it wasn't my thing, I haven't used it since," the mayor said. "But I think the bigger issues are, were we gonna create something that actually was gonna be fair, create something that addresses the problems, or just open the floodgates?"

The report recommends that the use of marijuana be limited to New Yorkers 21 or older, that past marijuana convictions be expunged, and that measures be taken to ensure that small, minority owned businesses are able to take advantage of the legal marijuana market. The mayor was insistent on this last point. "Let's exclude corporate America from this equation, period," de Blasio said.

The report echoes many of the pillars of The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, a state bill co-sponsored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo), and State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), which is just as well because marijuana legalization is the state's purview, not the city's. ("Everyone in Albany should make sure they get it right," the mayor added.)

"I’m glad that the Mayor has come out in support of legalizing adult-use marijuana, and particularly that his report recognizes the need for restorative justice and ensuring those most burdened by prohibition can benefit from legalization," Kreuger said in a statement to Gothamist.

One crucial player missing from the mayor's announcement: the NYPD. In September, the department pledged to stop arresting New Yorkers for smoking marijuana in public, unless that person is on parole or probation, has a misdemeanor or felony warrant, does not have identification, is categorized as a violent offender, or is behind the wheel of a car. The NYPD also said they would arrest those who they feel pose a legitimate public safety threat.

According to the press release for the announcement, arrests for public consumption of marijuana are down 80.6 percent and summonses have also decreased 30 percent since the policy change.

Around 800,000 New Yorkers were arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana over the last 20 years, the vast majority of them Black or Hispanic, even though marijuana was decriminalized in the state in 1977.

Asked if smoking marijuana in public under a legalized framework would give an NYPD officer the reasonable suspicion necessary to stop and question them, the head of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, Elizabeth Glazer, said each case would be "very, very fact specific," and deferred the question to Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Jr.

"If as the mayor hopes, that marijuana is legalized, then it would no longer necessarily be the position that the police would be seeing criminal conduct occurring in front of them," Vance said.

Anthony Posada, the supervising attorney for the community justice unit of the Legal Aid Society, told Gothamist that the NYPD would retain broad discretion in what to do when encountering people smoking marijuana.

"What we find that will be the issue, and has consistently been the issue, is the enforcement and how it's disproportionate to Black and brown communities," Posada said. "Even now in a world where summonses have been reduced, arrests have gone down—they're still concentrated on people of color."

A spokesperson for the NYPD declined to comment on the mayor's report or the department's absence from the announcement, but said that Commissioner Jimmy O'Neill would have a media availability on Friday afternoon.

NY Daily News: Read away! Teen defendants can now take books from courthouse mini library bookshelf

Legal Aid attorney Noor Ahmad helped install a bookcase inside the youth cases courtroom at Brooklyn Criminal Court. (Jesse Ward for New York Daily News)

Legal Aid attorney Noor Ahmad helped install a bookcase inside the youth cases courtroom at Brooklyn Criminal Court. (Jesse Ward for New York Daily News)

By Reuven Blau - Dec 26, 2018

Troubled teens can now escape in a book as they wait for their criminal cases to be called in court.

The young defendants can choose from 200 books on a shelf in the back of the Adolescent and Young Diversion court in downtown Brooklyn.

Advocates for the youthful offenders believe the court library is the first of its kind in the nation and there’s hope to expand it statewide.

For years, court officials enforced an unofficial “no reading” policy in the courtroom, even as it often took hours for some cases to be called.

“For many young people books can be life-changing,” said Legal Aid Society lawyer Noor Ahmad. “Yet it felt like this policy was communicating the complete opposite.”

In November 2016, Ahmad got the idea after a few of her clients were kicked out of the courtroom for talking. She asked the court officers for a sidebar to speak to then-Criminal Court Justice Craig Walker.

She made a traditional legal argument: the books would give the teens something productive to do as they waited.

“Many are missing school, and this might be the only time in the day or even week they are reading,” she added. “It would reduce the level of tension between young people and law enforcement.”

Walker agreed, with two caveats: no magazines and he’d have permission to vet all the books.

But it took months for Ahmad to cut through the red tape at the Office of Court Administration to get formal permission for the bookshelf. Court officers were worried teens could use the books as weapons during a hearing.

“While this is a very basic concept, it didn't seem clear why I was looking to make a change,” she recalled. “Additionally, our clients are not perceived as deserving of what they perceived as a gift or benefit.”

Ahmad and other Legal Aid staffers spent the past two years convincing the court officials to formally approve the idea. They also reached out to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice for support.

Finally, in February, the Legal Aid Society bought a bookcase from a court-approved vendor. It was installed in the summer inside the sixth-floor courtroom at 120 Schermerhorn St.

Teens there can read the books in court and take them home if they want.

Penguin Random House has donated books to keep it stocked and it currently has more than 200 titles. The books include several titles by Ta-Nehisi Coats as well as Trevor Noah’s memoir “Born a Crime” and “Decoded” by Jay-Z.

The books “will inform, entertain, and inspire” the teens, said Penguin Random House CEO Madeline McIntosh.

For Noor, the pilot program is personal.

“I know I was always encouraged to read, if not commanded to, by both my parents and my teachers,” she said.

New York Jets Players, Coaches, and Ownership Commit $800,000 to Social Justice Causes

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Funds donated will be given to five organizations aimed at combating social inequality and reducing barriers to opportunity

The New York Jets announced today that players, coaches, and ownership are committing $800,000 to five non-profit social justice organizations that aim to combat social inequality and reduce barriers to opportunity. As part of that total, New York Jets players and coaches have committed $200,000, which the organization will match, in addition to a $250,000 donation from New York Jets Chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson. Additional funds were donated by the New York Jets Foundation and the NFL Foundation’s Player Matching Grant.

“I am extremely proud of our team for their commitment to empowering our communities through their donations and participation in outreach programs,” said New York Jets Chairman & CEO Christopher Johnson. “While it was a collective effort within the organization to make this donation possible, the players desire to make a difference fueled this endeavor. We are excited to help position these five organizations to continue their work in our communities.”

The New York Jets leadership committee, which was formed in 2017 and includes Kelvin Beachum, Ben Ijalana, Steve McClendon and Josh McCown, selected the following organizations - The Black Alliance for Just Immigration, JustLeadershipUSA, Breakthrough New York, The Legal Aid Society’s Decarceration Project, and The New York Foundling. Each organization, which will receive a $160,000 grant, focuses on education, community/police relations, criminal justice reform, or other initiatives including reducing poverty, racial equality and workforce development.

“Inadequate access to resources for education, poverty reduction, or racial equality has effected every member of our locker room,” said Kelvin Beachum. “From the communities we came from, to the one we now call home – it is abundantly clear that these organizations are not only needed but are causing direct change in the fight against social inequality.”

The players were joined by Mr. Johnson, Jets President Neil Glat, and other team executives on the leadership committee.

In partnership with Mr. Johnson, players have worked as advocates in the social justice conversation through listen and learn tours with New York Governor’s office and State Officials. Players also co-authored op-eds focused on improving the criminal justice system.

“We started this program after it became clear that our locker room wanted to make a change,” said Josh McCown. “Collectively we wanted to make an impact in areas that our communities needed the most. With this donation, combined with our other efforts, we hope to support the organizations and resources that aid in the fight against social disparity.”

In March, the National Football League announced that each club would match player/alumni contributions for the purposes of establishing a fund to support community improvement, social justice and law enforcement relationships.

To view a video about the New York Jets Social Justice program, please click here.

About the Social Justice Organizations

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) is a membership based nonprofit organization that organizes, advocates, provides direct legal services and raises awareness around the unique issues facing the nearly 10 million Black immigrants, refugees, and their loved ones in the U.S. These challenges include the impact of harsh immigration policies, especially the detention and deportation of Black women, children and youth; the cancellation of vital humanitarian programs; family separation; mass incarceration; and economic and health inequality. We were founded in in 2006 by veteran civil rights activists and clergy that were concerned about a wave of unjust immigration enforcement laws that were gaining popularity nationwide. Our national headquarters is in New York City and we also have chapters or members in Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Oakland, DC, and Minneapolis. For more information: https://baji.org/

JustLeadershipUSA was founded in 2014 on the core belief that the most challenging barrier to systemic criminal justice reform in the United States is the absence of powerful and visionary leadership by those who have been directly affected: those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from the resources, power, and decision making. Consistent with our mission, JLUSA’s ambitious goal is to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030 while building and empowering a network of formerly incarcerated advocates to take the lead. In four short years, JLUSA has become one of the leading national criminal justice advocacy organizations and boldest voices for uncompromising reform. For more information: https://www.justleadershipusa.org/

Breakthrough New York transforms the lives of talented kids from low-income backgrounds by providing educational support from middle school through college and into careers. We also inspire talented young people to enter careers in education through our students-teaching-students model. Our goal is to create leaders who break the cycle of poverty in their families and effect positive change in their communities. For more information: http://www.btny.org/

In June 2016, The Legal Aid Society launched the Decarceration Project, a bail litigation and policy initiative created for the sole purpose of fighting against the mass pre-trial detention of New Yorkers – most of whom are Black and Brown. The Project offers comprehensive legal and supportive services to our public defenders to challenge unjust money bail decisions, and partners with grassroots organizations demanding reform statewide. By defending clients in the courtroom and passionately advocating for broader legal reform, the Decarceration Project continues The Legal Aid Society’s mission, working on the front-line in the fight for low-income New Yorkers who have suffered in silence for far too long. For more information: http://www.unlockjustice.org/

The New York Foundling reaches 30,000 children and families each year in all five boroughs of New York City, surrounding counties, and Puerto Rico. Established in 1869, our vision is a community where every person, regardless of background or circumstance, enjoys the safe, stable, and supportive relationships needed to reach his or her full potential. To achieve this, we provide evidence-based programs that focus on keeping families together; preventing abuse and neglect; providing academic support for children; and giving people with developmental disabilities the tools and training they need to lead independent lives. For more information, please visit www.nyfoundling.org.

Mott Haven Academy Charter School is the first and most advanced school designed for children in the foster care and child welfare system in New York City. Haven Academy's mission is to empower vulnerable children in an educational environment that addresses and reduces the barriers to academic success through the integration of family support services combined with a rigorous academic program. Now in its 10th year of service to the community, graduates continue to be resilient, resourceful, independent scholars who have the skills necessary to reach their full potential and to build a better future. Haven Academy serves Pre-K through 6th Grade and will continue to grow over the next two years to serve through 8th Grade. For more information, please visits HavenAcademy.org. For more information: https://www.nyfoundling.org/program/mott-haven-academy-charter-school/

Mayor De Blasio Calls for Fair Cannabis Legalization That Promotes Equity and Opportunity for All

Report promotes small business development, redressing impacts of past criminalization and driving economic opportunity to historically marginalized communities

Mayor Bill de Blasio today endorsed the safe and fair legalization of cannabis in New York. The Mayor also released his Task Force report on Cannabis Legalization, which calls for a strong, public health-focused regulatory framework and the empowerment of local government to prevent corporate greed, foster small businesses and meet the demands of New York City communities. The report also places great emphasis on the need to ensure that any marijuana industry in New York City right the wrongs of the past and promotes economic opportunity.

“I have been convinced that we can establish a regulatory framework that keeps our streets safe, rights the wrongs of the past, and gives economic opportunity to communities hit hardest by the war on drugs," said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “I support legalization because we’ve developed a path forward that will help make our City fairer. I look forward to working with the State as to make this a reality.”

“As we go down the path toward legalization of marijuana in our city and state, let us recognize that it is not without risks,” said First Lady Chirlane McCray, who leads the City’s mental health and substance misuse efforts. “We must do everything we can to protect our city’s young people, and educate all New Yorkers about marijuana use. That’s why this report is so important, and I urge state lawmakers use the recommendations as a guide for their work in the months ahead.”

“I have long supported the legalization of recreational marijuana, and I am looking forward to reviewing these recommendations. Although whites, blacks and Latinos smoke marijuana at roughly the same rates, minorities have been arrested disproportionally for low-level marijuana possession. We have a responsibility to undo these past wrongs. As New York looks to move forward with decriminalizing marijuana, we must ensure that part of the conversation includes expunging convictions of people with low-level possession offenses,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

The report, A Fair Approach to Marijuana, was produced by the Mayor's Task Force on Cannabis Legalization, which was convened in July 2018 to identify the goals and challenges that should guide the City’s preparations for potential legalization.

The recommendations are centered on local development, equity, public health and a wholesale departure from the failed war on drugs. These include the automatic expungement of criminal records for conduct that would be legalized – subject to notice and opportunity by District Attorneys’ Offices to raise objections in specific cases; educational resources for youth, educators, consumers, health care workers; the elimination of routine testing as prerequisite to social service benefit eligibility and the prohibition of pre-employment and random testing, with some narrow exceptions.

It also calls for balancing State regulatory structures with local authority to permit licensed consumption sites, determine business density restrictions to avoid over-concentration and allow localities to restrict or prohibit home cultivation. The report also makes recommendations to prevent big business from market domination by instituting a licensing system that would create opportunities for small businesses.

If legalized, the City would seek to:

  • Establish an Equitable Licensing System: Create local licensing programs, regulate public places of consumption, regulate home and commercial cultivation and manufacturing, and regulate home delivery services.

  • Preserve Communities: Establish zoning and area restrictions for cannabis businesses, as well as restrictions on the density to determine how the location of cannabis businesses can best fit into the fabric of its communities.

  • Protect Public Health: Enforce age limits of 21 and over with civil rather than criminal penalties to violations of cannabis regulations to the greatest extent possible consistent with public safety.

  • Right Historic Wrongs: Recommend automatic expungement of criminal records relating to conduct that may be legalized, including personal use and possession of certain quantities – subject to notice and opportunity by District Attorneys’ Offices to raise objections in specific cases.

  • Ensure Product Safety: Recommend statewide standards for product safety, labeling and packaging, marketing, and advertising, as well as a mandatory seed-to-sale tracking system accessible to State and local regulators and financial institutions serving cannabis-related businesses.

  • Put Small Businesses First: Work with State authorities to reduce the risk of market domination by big businesses and foster sustainable growth, in part, by restricting businesses from owning and controlling each stage of the supply chain, which may otherwise be owned by different, specialized businesses.

  • Create Equal Opportunity: Participate in a dual state-local licensing structure that will permit the City to pursue its own innovations to promote economic opportunities created by this new market, subject to the minimum standards set by the State.

  • Ease Access to Capital: Advocate for legislation expressly providing that banking and professional services for cannabis-related businesses do not violate State law.

  • Make Fair Investments: Allocate tax revenue, licensing fees, and other sources of financing to administer the new industry and support cannabis businesses and workers, with a focus on target populations and community reinvestment.

  • Build Local Businesses: Develop an incubator program to provide direct support to equity applicants in the form of counseling services, education, small businesses coaching, and compliance assistance.

The above recommendations would follow a series of steps by the Administration that have successfully reduced arrests for marijuana in New York City.

The Task Force was coordinated by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and includes representatives of relevant City agencies. The Task Force was divided into five subcommittees –focused on Licensing and Land Use; Economic Opportunity; Taxation and Finance; Law Enforcement and Social Justice; and Public Health, Social Services and Education – that met regularly to develop the recommendations reflected in the Task Force report. Members consulted with experts both supportive and opposed to legalization and studied jurisdictions that have regulated the adult use of cannabis.

In November of 2014, the NYPD changed its policy to issue criminal summonses instead of arresting for possession of marijuana in open view. That policy led to a 37 percent decline in arrests from 2014 to 2015. Then, in September 2018, the NYPD began issuing criminal summonses instead of making arrests for marijuana consumption in public. Since this change in policy for public consumption enforcement, arrests are down 80.6 percent and summonses are also down 30 percent.

To see the entire report of the Mayor's Task Force on Cannabis Legalization, click here. To see a quick cannabis fact sheet, click here.

“As New York moves closer to creating a legal market, which my office has shown will generate billions of dollars, we must prioritize correcting historic injustices and backwards policies of the past,” said New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. “We know that lower income Black and Latinx New Yorkers have been hit hardest by marijuana enforcement, and they should be the first to benefit from legalization. That means developing a cannabis equity program and investing in these communities – it’s the only way forward.”

Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark said, “I commend the Mayor’s Task Force for its thorough and considered report, which looks at public safety and quality-of-life aspects of legalization of marijuana. The recommendations recognize the importance of having safeguards in place. The recommendations also dovetail with what my Office has been doing for the past three years, in terms of dismissing low-level quality of life offenses that have an impact on employment, housing and education opportunities. The time has come for the state legislature to seriously consider decriminalizing marijuana and providing a uniform approach to vacating marijuana convictions, to ensure fairness for residents of the Bronx and throughout New York State.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said, “Brooklyn has been leading the effort to reform marijuana enforcement since 2014, when we stopped prosecuting low level marijuana possession cases, through yesterday, when we took the significant step of erasing past convictions for the first time in New York State history. Our borough was ground zero for disparate enforcement of marijuana offenses during the stop and frisk era, and any legalization effort must include clearing old records and other policies that will correct the harm done to communities of color in the past. I commend Mayor de Blasio for outlining a plan that is consistent with these principals.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. said, “My Office began declining to prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases on August 1. We did so because our research found virtually no public safety rationale for the criminal prosecution of pot smoking, and certainly no justification for the racial disparities underlying enforcement. The Mayor’s Task Force report echoes these critical findings and lays out a safe, fair, and comprehensive framework for New York to legalize, regulate, and expunge. I am proud to join forces with Mayor de Blasio and First Lady McCray on this critical endeavor, and I thank them and the members of the Task Force for their leadership and hard work.”

State Senator-elect Robert Jackson said, “I support the legalization of marijuana, but importantly it must be done the right way. We need to educate of its risks, regulate to provide only safe adult access and we need to prioritize the benefits for communities that have been most harmed by the War on Drugs. The Mayor’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization has provided a good framework to end the racial injustice of our drug policy and move our state forward in a smart, sensible and equitable way.”

“Too many in our city have had their lives adversely impacted as a result of our states outdated cannabis prohibition laws,” said Assemblyman David I. Weprin, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Correction. “By legalizing cannabis in a safe and fair way, we can ensure that different communities are no longer disproportionately affected by the prohibition and that consumption will be regulated in the best interest of the public health. I look forward to the establishment of a strong regulatory framework for the legalization of adult-use cannabis and applaud Mayor Bill de Blasio on his Task Force report on Cannabis Legalization.”

“The priority of cannabis legalization must be to deliver social justice to the communities that have historically been harmed by the racist and classist war on drugs. In Albany, I will be working alongside my colleagues to pass a bill that addresses past injustices through the funding of community development programs with revenue from a cannabis tax, the vacation of old cannabis-related convictions, and by designating a significant share of licenses to operate a cannabis business to Black and Latino entrepreneurs. We must work to accomplish a legalization that strongly protects the health of New Yorkers – especially our children. I look forward to working with a mayoral administration that shares these core beliefs on this issue,” said Assembly Member Harvey Epstein.

“Prohibition has resulted in unfair and unequal enforcement, and whatever harm overuse of cannabis may cause, more and more people are coming to the realization that prohibition’s consequences are worse,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “If a legalized marijuana industry is going to move forward, we need to think and plan seriously for what comes next. A range of public health concerns will need to be addressed, injustices will need to be corrected, and rules will need to be crafted that work for local communities.”

"We’ve come a long way to finally get to the point where legalizing marijuana is an inevitability in New York State, but there is so much work left to do to ensure we right the wrongs of our past by expunging all marijuana related criminal records, reinvesting in communities who were disproportionally impacted by law enforcement and ensuring that we place a focus on MWBEs and invest in small business owners in need of capital,” said Council Member Donovan Richards, Chair of the Committee on Public Safety. “Mayor de Blasio’s Task Force recommendations show that he is on board, focused on the issues that matter to those impacted and committed to investing in communities of color throughout the City. While there are still many questions and policies to work out, I look forward to working with the administration moving forward and thank Mayor de Blasio and the entire Task Force.”

"Marijuana enforcement has long been discriminatory towards communities of color and has been a primary instrument in establishing the New Jim Crow, whereby hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are today restricted in where they can live, work, and go to school because of a prior marijuana conviction. I'm optimistic that the Mayor's leadership on marijuana legalization and conviction expungements can finally help rectify this injustice,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Committee on the Justice System.

“New York can no longer be stuck in the past – it’s long past time that we legalize marijuana. Now we need to ensure as we move towards legalization that we are investing revenues and regulatory resources in our communities of color which bore the brunt of unjust drug laws for decades, and working to expunge criminal marijuana records as well,” said Council Member Carlina Rivera.

"The recommendations laid out by the task force are a powerful statement on the opportunity and the necessity of ending the destructive criminalization of marijuana and creating a legal industry for the advancement of the very communities impacted by this prohibition. As I and other advocates have argued for years, the first priority should the state finally legalize cannabis needs to be restoration and reinvestment in the lives ruined by the senseless and hysterical ban on marijuana, through expungement and advancement. I am glad that the Administration, and the city, stand ready to act once the state enacts legalization, and look forward to advancing the implementation of many of these positive policies, including legislation, which I sponsor and for which I have long advocated," said Council Member Jumaane D. Williams.

"This is a clear road map to ending the prohibition on marijuana and ensuring the benefits of legalization go to Black and brown communities that were devastated by the racist war on drugs," said Dahlia McManus, Deputy Director of the New York Working Families Party. "We thank Mayor de Blasio for his leadership on this issue, and we'll work hard to build support in the legislature so that these recommendations can become a reality."

“Disparate marijuana prohibition and prosecution has plagued our clients - the majority from communities of color - for decades, and legalization will begin fixing this problem,” said Anthony Posada, Supervising Attorney of the Community Justice Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “We are glad that Mayor Bill de Blasio supports legalization through a framework that is centered on empowering black and brown neighborhoods with the economic benefits of legalization, focused on repairing past wrongs through the automatic expungement of criminal records, and ensuring diversity and access to the industry.”

"I have been working with young people for the last 30 years and the recreational use of marijuana has been a major issue. I want to thank Mayor Bill de Blasio for having the courage to move forth with the legalization of recreational marijuana. This legalization of recreational marijuana will definitely stop the disproportionate arrest and punishment for marijuana which often ended up with black and Latino males on Rikers Island for small quantities with long incarceration periods while awaiting trial. These arrest further impacted young people's acceptance into college and to obtain jobs. Once again thank you Mayor de Blasio for your leadership,” said Iesha Sekou, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Street Corner Resources.

“The Mayors approach to legalization is one that prioritizes justice,” said Nelson Guerrero of Cannabis Cultural Association NORML, a local New York advocate. “The emphasis on the expungement of records, local ownership, and promoting economic opportunities in disenfranchised communities will clear a path for a vibrant and prosperous transition from prohibition to a regulated market that safely and effectively serves consumers. The timing of this legislative plan couldn't be better,”

“We know how important drug use is to the for profit prison system, the deportation system, the multiple cruel punishmentalist systems with which we have found ourselves, and we can no longer pretend to be blind to the exquisite harms of racialized drug policies. Legalizing cannabis could right many wrongs — those of non-forgiveness, those of racial justice, those of constitutional power. It would also give us a strong lens with which to examine the myriad ways white supremacy has been institutionalized. Black and brown people do drugs and are criminalized and brutally policed, while white people are wrapped in resources, funding, treatment in compassion. What a perfect view on a system gone wrong for too long. Legalizing cannabis will help us all down the road to equity and racial justice. I speak as a white person and a Christian, one who follows the Jesus who would surely have legalized drug use and other forms of harm reduction,” said Reverend Donna Schaper, Senior Minister, Judson Memorial Church and Min. Erica Poellot, Judson Memorial Church and NYC Harm Reduction Coalition.

"Legalizing the sale and recreational use of marijuana is long overdue. We must now work to free all persons, especially black and brown young people, who are incarcerated for activity from which corporations will now profit," said Reverend Fred Davie, Vice President of Union Theological Seminary.

“New York State is on the cusp of ending our failed war on marijuana and taking a tremendous step to legalize marijuana for adult use. In order for legalization to be responsive to the landscape of harm done in New York, we absolutely must remove criminal records, implement legalization in a way that ensures equity and diversity, and direct tax revenue from legal sales toward rebuilding the communities hit hardest by marijuana criminalization. NYC can lead and it should,” said Kassandra Frederique, Drug Policy Alliance NY State Director.

“We applaud the work of the Mayor and the efforts of the Task Force – as we continue to look at violence as a public health issue, we want to ensure that Black and Brown communities who experienced extremely disproportionate penalties for cannabis receive the tools they need to recover/heal, up to and including full restitution. There is no way to compensate for the years lost by every family affected by the criminalization of what will now be legal – however, at a minimum, we must ensure that in addition to release and expungement, there are direct economic reparations to these marginalized communities significantly impacted by the war on drugs, who have been incarcerated for something that is not only no longer a crime, but that the city now stands to benefit from financially. As an equitable public health response, Black and Brown communities must be at the core of small business opportunities, education, and other equitable public health responses to heal from the trauma of aftermath of the war on drugs and to repair harms of the past. The war on drugs was waged on our communities, and the restoration and healing from that war must be guided by us,” said Erica Ford, Co-Creator of NYC Crisis Management System & CEO of LIFE Camp Inc. "Mayor de Blasio's task-force and its report are remarkable in a number of ways. But most importantly, they demonstrate the power of our local government to create enormous and positive change for the communities that need it most. The fact is that Black and Latino communities in New York City’s low-income neighborhoods have been unfairly and disproportionately targeted by the city’s antiquated marijuana policies for decades. The measures recommended by the task-force stand to right these generations-old wrongs; level a new sector's economic playing-field; and turn racist policies and practices on their head to lift up poor communities and communities of color that have, for so long, been ground down by oppression. We applaud the recommendations of Mayor de Blasio’s task-force and support the creation of a well-regulated and inclusive legal marijuana industry,” said George T. McDonald, Founder and President of the Doe Fund.

“I applaud Mayor De Blasio in his support for legalizing Marijuana and supporting expungement. This will surely equalize the playing field,” said Ms. Leora Keith, President of Tompkins Houses Resident Association and First Vice Chair of Brooklyn West.

“The legalization of Marijuana needs to happen! The injustice has to come to an end. Thank you for your support,” said Ms. Cynthia Simpson, President of Marcy Houses Resident Green Committee.

“I applaud any effort that brings restorative justice to redress the wrongs of the ‘war on drugs’. It is my great hope that as this industry emerges, there is equity in access and continued attention to how communities of color are affected by our policies,” said Reverend Kaji Dousa, Senior Minister of the Park Avenue Christian Church