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Repealing The Blindfold
For years, antiquated discovery laws have allowed district attorneys to withhold police reports, grand jury minutes, witness statements and other evidence until the day a trial actually begins. This law prevented defendants from fully understanding the cases being brought against them, putting our staff and our clients at a severe disadvantage. Time and again, we saw this discovery policy disrupt the lives of our clients.
Now, new rules have been implemented which will level the playing field for New Yorkers. The new rules require that prosecutors share evidence at the earliest stages of a case. If a defendant facing felony charges is offered a plea deal, information must be shared at least three days before this deadline to accept. This will give our staff the time and resources they need to properly defend our clients, making our criminal justice system more just. Learn more about what these changes mean for our clients.
First Steps Towards Ending Bail
New York City has long relied on an outdated bail system that victimizes poor and powerless New Yorkers. Each year, 47,000 people will be incarcerated before conviction simply because they cannot afford bail. This time in jail can often have disastrous effects on New Yorkers, causing them to lose their jobs, their homes, and their community of support. As a result, many of those held in pre-conviction detention will take a plea deal, admitting to a crime they may have not even committed just to get themselves out of prison. For clients like Terrence Wilkerson, an unfair bail determination meant time in jail, away from his family and friends. Through our Decarceration Project, we have helped New Yorkers like Terrence navigate this complex cash bail system.
Now, New York State has taken the first important step to reforming this outdated bail system. New policies have eliminated cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, allowing roughly 90% of defendants charged to avoid jail as their legal process unfolds. While this bill may not go far enough to completely overturn decades of devastating bail policy, it also it noteworthy for the absence of problematic “dangerousness determinations.” Dangerousness determinations, pushed for by law enforcement, would mandate that individuals could be denied release under an arbitrary dangerousness ruling, which would almost surely result in black and brown New Yorkers being targeted. While we continue to fight for our client, we are proud to help push forward these important changes.
A Key Policy Protects Immigrants
As we continue to defend our clients from unlawful deportations, we are also advocating for essential reforms at all levels of government. Now, the State has pushed forward much needed legislation that will offer protection to countless immigrants. This legislation relates to the maximum sentence for class A misdemeanors. Currently, the maximum sentence is 365 days. Unfortunately, under federal law, certain minor convictions that are punishable by a year or more may lead to detention and even deportation. As a result, minor crimes can have devastating effects on immigrants across our city.
Fortunately, new legislation have reduced the maximum sentence on many of these misdemeanors to 364 days, saving thousands of New Yorkers from being torn away from their families and communities. This change highlights our city and state’s dedication to our immigrant communities, and helps us keep New Yorkers safe from deportation.
Giving Schools The Resources They Need
Also present in the new State Budget is a $1 billion investment in education. In addition to the added investment, Governor Cuomo openly advocated for increased transparency in how school districts use these new funds. For years, districts sent funding towards high achieving schools, leaving vulnerable students to fall even further behind. Now, districts must prioritize funding poorer schools.
Across the city, students are facing a number of challenges. A growing homelessness crisis saw over 105,000 students without a place to stay at some point during last school year. In addition, many students are not receiving the specialized educational services they need; some 48,000 students failed to receive classroom services they required. We are working on the front-lines and behind the scenes the ensure our children have they resources they need to thrive. Our Education Law Unit is helping parents and students build educational plans, and giving them the chance at a brighter future. We are hopeful that this increased funding will help our client community as they seek an education.
Reforms Still Needed To Keep Our City Affordable
Conspicuously absent from these historic reforms is serious action on the ever-growing number of housing issues our clients face. It has been almost a year since Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency at the New York City Housing Authority. Since then, NYCHA residents have still suffered from unsafe conditions, rodent infestations, and the loss of heat and hot water during some of the coldest days of the year.
City and State authorities need to come together to provide essential resources to address the widespread capital needs of NYCHA. In addition, the Home Stability Support program, which would offer assistance to thousands of tenants facing eviction and homelessness, remains unfunded. We will continue to advocate for crucial changes in the way NYCHA treats tenants.
Legalization Delayed Again
One of the major omissions from this State budget is the legalization of recreational marijuana. At the start of his most recent term, Governor Cuomo declared legalization would be among his top priorities. However, competing political interests have side-lined the push for legalization.
This unfortunate delay has serious effects on the clients and communities we serve every day. The NYPD continues to crack down on recreational marijuana use in communities of color, creating a striking disparity in enforcement. Anthony Posada, Supervising Attorney of our Community Justice Unit, has been outspoken in his support for legalization, addressing the devastating effects that current policies have. We will continue to push for legalization and support all efforts to rebuild communities that have been effected by a decades-long push towards criminalization.
Fighting Employment Discrimination
In the last year, more than 80,000 New Yorkers had charges against them dropped and their cases sealed through an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, or ACD. In many cases, an ACD gives an individual a clean slate after six months or one year of good behavior. For those facing minor charges, an ACD is often the fastest way to have their cases dismissed in New York’s backlogged court system.
However, even though an ACD is not a conviction or a plea agreement, New Yorkers who accept ACDs face rampant employment discrimination. Through our newly created Worker Justice Project, we fight to protect these New Yorkers from discrimination, helping them keep their jobs and support their families. The Project, along with the Special Litigation Unit and Employment Law Unit, advocated to broaden protections for these vulnerable New Yorkers. Now, with the new State budget, New Yorkers with ACDs are explicitly protected from discrimination. We are proud of this major victory and we will continue to defend the rights of our clients in the workplace.
Protecting Low-Income Drivers
Since 2013, New York State has been suspending the driver’s licenses of people who owe more than $10,000 in tax debt. This undue burden prevents many hardworking New Yorkers from finding gainful employment to start paying off their mounting debt. For years, our Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic has advocated alongside our partner organizations to push to change this law.
Now, with the new State budget, several crucial changes to this policy have been implemented. Moving forward, New York State will no longer take away the licenses of those receiving public assistance or Supplemental Security Income, or those who are facing undue economic hardship. While State agencies work out these provisions, we will continue to push for the rights of our clients, and ensure that every New Yorker has the opportunity to thrive.