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GUEST COLUMN: Don’t derail reforms to bail and discovery

GUEST COLUMN: Don’t derail reforms to bail and discovery

Reforms are necessary to help people who are most vulnerable
GUEST COLUMN: Don’t derail reforms to bail and discovery
Jamaica Miles speaks at Schenectady County Public Library in Schenectady on Thursday, January 17, 2019.
Photographer: Erica Miller

In recent days, we’ve seen counties pass resolutions demanding New York state maintain the justice system’s biased status quo, which disproportionately punishes poor New Yorkers and people of color.

These resolutions — based on one passed by Warren County and shared with other counties around the state, along with the New York State Association of Counties — call for a moratorium on New York’s new bail and discovery laws before they’ve even gone into effect.

It’s part of a coordinated fear-mongering campaign to halt critical progress in the movement to create a fairer, more just system that achieves true public safety for all New Yorkers. 

Unsurprisingly, the resolution starts with an acknowledgment of the need for reform, but ends with an appeal to continue business as usual: to keep giving judges the unfettered discretion to jail legally innocent people; to allow prosecutors to continue to withhold evidence and coerce plea deals; to ensure that the right to pretrial liberty applies only to those who can afford to pay for it; and to just “hold-off” on providing justice to thousands of New Yorkers and bringing true stability and safety to our communities.

These same counties are the ones whose jail populations are overwhelmingly filled with people who are detained awaiting their day in court because they are too poor to pay bail.

They have reinforced the devastating cycle of mass incarceration and structural racism in law enforcement practices that ensure black, brown and poor people are disproportionately arrested, charged, and jailed pretrial.

For years, critical case evidence has been withheld from defendants in these communities — driving wrongful convictions and unfair plea negotiation processes.

Countless people have been jailed on the lowest charges — even violations — because they face a different standard of justice that does not include “innocent until proven guilty.”

These counties have chosen punishment over treatment, restorative justice and harm reduction, ignoring the overwhelming evidence – both in New York state and the rest of the country – that shows less reliance on incarceration actually delivers more public safety. 

Yet, there are no resolutions condemning mass incarceration.

There are no resolutions condemning the senseless loss of lives in Schenectady, Erie and Broome county jails.

There are no resolutions for the survivors and their families whose lives have been upended and destroyed by this unjust and oppressive system.

There are no resolutions to fully fund our public schools and to end homelessness instead of supporting corporations who profit from jails and prisons.

Beyond this glaring hypocrisy, these resolutions undermine the democratic process and the will of the people.

A majority of New Yorkers support the new pretrial reforms, and a majority of state lawmakers from all regions voted to pass and sign them into law.

That’s because a majority of us know that advancing real justice and ending the harm caused by mass jailing is necessary.

It is sadistic to pour so much energy into denying people the slightest chance at justice, in a system that has systematically destroyed the lives of poor, black, and brown New Yorkers.

We owe it to these people, and to ourselves, to see these reforms through.  

Jamaica Miles, a lifelong resident of Schenectady, is state organizing and training director of Citizen Action of New York.

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