Last night, the New York Daily News published an op-ed written by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo honoring the service of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and highlighting the Governor’s comprehensive plan to reform the criminal justice system in New York. The text of that op-ed is available below, and it can be viewed online here. More information on the Governor’s "New York Promise" agenda is available here.
Martin Luther King's crusade for justice not over as New York needs criminal justice reform
This weekend, we celebrate the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Above all else, King’s crusade was about justice — racial, economic and social justice. While we have made tremendous progress, the truth is that crusade for justice is not over. We still have a judicial system that is supposed to be blind, but that all too often finds the scales of justice tipped by resources or race.
In the coming months in Albany, as part of our “New York Promise” agenda, I will propose that the Legislature enact important reforms that will result in a criminal justice system more just than it is today. In the words of King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There are concrete actions we can take here in New York.
First, we must make changes to our rules regarding bail. Under the current law, bail is issued only if a defendant can put up an amount of money sufficient to guarantee his or her return to face trial. This is a deeply flawed system that equates the right to freedom with having money. Bail arraignments are one of the first events defendants encounter in a court, and already the poor are disadvantaged.
Today, we have people, largely black and Latino men, who have been accused of crimes, often nonviolent crimes, who are sitting in jails like Rikers Island because they cannot afford bail. They sit for weeks, months, even years, with their lives and families disrupted, all because they do not have the financial means to post bail.
They may be suspected of a crime, but under our system, people are presumed innocent until they have been convicted. Locking up potentially innocent people for months or years is not justice.
We propose to allow judges at bail hearings to consider whether or not a defendant poses a risk to the community. New York is one of only four states without this option, and the change will allow those who pose no danger to stay at work and remain with their families until called to trial.
Which is another part of the process that drags too much. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution plainly says, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy trial.”
“Speedy” is obviously a flexible word, but surely it can’t mean months or years — especially when innocent people are being kept in prison. Yes, our courts are overcrowded, and some delays are unavoidable. But this is an unjust situation — damaging, life-threatening, and, on top of everything else, expensive; it costs $60,000 a year to incarcerate someone.
I am advancing legislation to reduce unnecessary delays and adjournments in court proceedings, while requiring that people held in custody — not just their attorneys — consent to a speedy trial waiver that must also be approved by a judge. It is true for suspects and victims alike: Justice delayed is justice denied.
We are also proposing simple, common-sense steps that will protect the integrity of investigations.
First, police should videotape interrogations of suspects for serious offenses. That way, any disputes about what was said or done can be easily resolved.
Second, police should adjust the way they conduct lineup identifications. The officer who is performing the investigation should not be the same officer who accompanies a crime victim to the lineup of suspects. There is a suspicion that investigating officers sometimes indicate to a witness which member of the lineup is under suspicion. Even if it happens once, it happens too often. We can eliminate all questions with a simple adjustment. With integrity assured, prosecutors can use these identifications at trial, where they are presently forbidden.
Finally, we must raise the age at which we prosecute people as adults. New York stands as one of only two states in the nation that process all 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system, no matter their offense. This is one exclusive club to which New York should not belong. I have taken executive action to remove 16- and 17-year-olds from adult prisons and place them in age-appropriate facilities, but we need the Legislature to act to raise the age once and for all.
As King taught us, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and when they fail in this purpose, they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” We have identified these blockages in our system; the sooner we remove them, the better.