I was elected into the New York State Senate in 2020, shortly after the racial justice protest movement that erupted in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That was one of the largest protest movements in United States history, and it is something that I constantly keep in mind as I fight for racial justice in Albany.
Fundamentally, my philosophy towards public safety is guided by the principle that the way we make neighborhoods safer is by providing people with housing, stable jobs, health care, child care, and well-funded schools. Gun violence is real and there is no question that there are too many guns on our streets. I have worked with the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus to develop a 10-point plan for public safety in connection with budget discussions, because it is absolutely critical that we re-evaluate the failed carceral policies that have made us less safe. I have seen first-hand the consequences as communities of color have seen decades of chronic disinvestment while police budgets have ballooned and prison populations have expanded; we are at a point where New York state locks up a higher percentage of its people than almost any democracy on earth.
Ever increasing police budgets and incarceration rates have not and will not solve the problems of violence in our communities. As a socialist, I’m fully aware that we must target the root causes of harm through a community-centered approach while we push for investments in what really keeps us safe.
As a member of the Codes Committee (which oversees New York State’s criminal legal system), and as the chair of the Children & Families Committee (which oversees the juvenile justice system), I have made this one of my key areas of focus. I have fought to decarcerate New York State, push back against police power, and allow our youth to grow up in an environment that nourishes rather than criminalizes them with policies that emphasize true community safety.
Although we certainly did not win everything that we wanted since I took office, there have been some important victories, and as a State Senator I will continue to do everything I can to end policing and incarceration in New York State. During my first term, we passed legislation to end solitary confinement (S2836), restrict the imprisonment of individuals for simple parole violations (S1144A), overturn the discriminatory “Walking While Trans” law (S1351), legalize cannabis (S854A), and passed landmark legislation (S51001) to strengthen gun-control laws and close existing loopholes (including the loophole that allowed the Buffalo shooter to slip through the state’s Red Flag statute), among other laws. As the chair of the Children & Families Committee, I have taken a particular interest in public safety issues facing young people, and have passed laws to automatically seal certain records of youths in family court (S7171) and to allow for the adjustment of sentences of young people (S7033).
However, there remains much more to do.
As State Senator, I will continue to fight to:
Invest in Our Communities to Make Them Safer
We know that community stability and well-being are the best ways to promote safety. Research shows that states that invest in their social safety net have improved health and decreased violence in their communities. We must invest in historically disenfranchised communities to root out the drivers of violence and plant the seeds of safety.
- Fund community-based violence prevention programs. Violence prevention programs leverage the connections that community members with lived experience can make with young folks at high risk for being victims or perpetrators of violence. When these credible messengers can build trusted mentorship relationships with young people, without the fear of police intervention, they can be incredibly effective at preventing violence and recidivism. This year, our office helped to fund community violence-prevention programs such as Kings Against Violence Initiative (KAVI), Man Up NYC, SOS Bed-Stuy, Both Sides of the Violence, Red Hook Initiative, and The Bro Experience. We need to keep promoting these kinds of programs, and pass the Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Act (S1049).
- Invest in youth programs. Millions of children are left home alone after school hours, and these are the hours when violent juvenile crime peaks. We must set our youth up for success by providing subsidized programs and initiatives that foster community building, skill mastery, and innovation. This years’ proposed state budget does not go far enough in providing after-school programming. New York must provide increased funding to the statewide after-school network and align the Empire State After-School Program to reflect the true cost rate for students (S6750).
Decarcerate New York and End Perpetual Punishment
Caging our neighbors has not ended violence in our neighborhoods, but it has put the lives of millions of now-incarcerated New Yorkers at risk. Every three days, one incarcerated New Yorker dies in a state prison, with Black New Yorkers making up nearly 45% of those deaths. We must fight to end the cycle of incarceration, surveillance, and harm. I will continue to champion and advance legislation that reunites New Yorkers with their families and sends fewer people into this system. We must fight for decarceration, parole justice, and:
- Enact Elder Parole. The number of older adults in our prison system is rising every year even as the total incarcerated population is falling. Our prisons hold 47,704 older adults (those 55+), many of whom are sick and dying. To end this de facto death penalty, I will fight to pass S15A and enact Elder Parole, which would allow individuals aged 55 and older who have served 15 or more consecutive years the opportunity to be considered for parole and return to their communities.
- Ensure Fair and Timely Parole. New York has the second highest rate of parole-eligible individuals in the country; these individuals languish behind bars, subject to a slow, racially biased and impersonal parole system. We must make our parole system fairer to these thousands of people. Fair and Timely Parole (S7514) would instruct the Parole Board to evaluate those who are already eligible for parole on the basis of who they are today, including their personal transformation.
- Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. Each day in New York State, tens of thousands of people languish behind bars. Nearly 75% of them are Black and brown. Decades after the enactment of racist and draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws, New York must pass the Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act (S7871) and the Earned Time Act (S7873A), which would eliminate mandatory minimums and create additional opportunities for people to be considered for release.
- Pass the Clean Slate Act for our adult criminal courts. Countless individuals returning home from incarceration are followed by a prison “penalty”—the stamp of their criminal record blocking their opportunities for employment, housing, and more. The Clean Slate Act (S1553C) would end this continued punishment by requiring the expungement of certain records, including convictions for various traffic code infractions. Our advocacy led to the passage of the Clean Slate Act in the New York State Senate in 2022, but because the Assembly failed to pass the bill, we will have to fight this battle again next year.
- Ensure a “clean slate” for our family court system. In addition to passing the Clean Slate Act that relates to adult criminal courts, we also need to ensure that we are giving our children a “clean slate” as well. That is why I have introduced S9228 and S9391 to ensure that we are also expunging youth records for “juvenile delinquency” and “persons in need of supervision” cases in family court.
Choose Community Safety Over Police Power
I will continue to take seriously the job of countering the unchecked militarization of our police force and its expanding surveillance power. Communities aren’t made safer by expanding police funding or putting more people in cages. Therefore I will fight for bills that:
- Protect people experiencing a mental health crisis by passing Daniel’s Law. In 2020, Daniel Prude was in crisis in Rochester and his family called 911, only to have the police respond and ultimately kill him. The police did not understand his condition or his needs. Up to half of the victims of police violence have a disability, a majority of whom have a mental health disability. Building a robust mental health crisis response system through S4814 that does not involve police, but instead consists of first responders with relevant expertise, will help keep New Yorkers with mental health needs and their families, friends, and communities safe in times of crisis.
- End qualified immunity. Police presence in our communities introduces more violence under the guise of preventing it. New York must end qualified immunity because police should not be treated as immune from the laws that apply to everyone else. New York should set out a roadmap for the nation and pass S1991 to end qualified immunity in New York State.
- Prohibit police from using dishonest means to extract confessions. Confessions obtained via coercion and lies are unreliable and can lead to the incarceration of people who haven’t committed any harmful acts. Current laws allow the police to use deceptive practices and unrecorded interactions as a means of extracting confessions. As a State Senator, I have co-sponsored S324A, a bill that would treat any confession obtained via false pretenses as “involuntary” and inadmissible. Allowing the police to lie in order to extract confessions is unjust and irresponsible.
- Prohibit police from using robotic devices. In April 2021, the NYPD was spotted deploying a robotic dog at a NYCHA public housing development in Manhattan. Residents reported being scared and intimidated by the “surreal” robotic device, and reported that they felt like they were in a dystopian movie. The use of military devices, such as ground drones and robotic weapons, by police forces expands their ability to surveil criminalized communities and leeches funding that should go toward real public safety needs like NYCHA repairs. This is why I sponsor and will fight to pass S6418 in order to prevent this dangerous use of public resources.
- Prohibit tear gas, LRADs, and “less-lethal” munitions statewide. Police often acquire military hand-me-downs or use public money to purchase dangerous devices that are used against protesters and other civilians. These devices can kill people or cause serious permanent damage. Police should not have the ability to induce concussions, deafness, or blindness, and they should not be capable of killing people. I will work to pass S1134 to prohibit the procurement and usage of these devices statewide and to end the use of all military equipment by police departments in the state.
- Enact restrictions on facial recognition software. The use of facial recognition software has put our civil liberties and privacy rights at serious risk. What’s more, the use of these devices has been accompanied by a clear record of racial and gender bias. According to an MIT study, examination of facial-analysis software shows an error rate of 0.8% for light-skinned men and 34.7% for dark-skinned women. In addition, police and prosecutors are not mandated to disclose the use of facial recognition software to the defense. A number of states have already banned law enforcement from using facial recognition technologies, and I will fight to pass S79 to prevent the use of this dangerous and discriminatory technology in New York State.
End the War on Drugs and the Criminalization of Workers
Treating drug use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal legal one, has proven a more successful model for saving lives while expanding access to treatment, healthcare, and other social services. Additionally, police harassment and violence stems largely from the criminalization of survival economies. We can begin to put a stop to the failed War on Drugs and end the criminalization of so-called “informal” workers by passing legislation to:
- Stop violence in the sex trades. New York State law has more than two dozen anti-prostitution penal laws, about half of which pertain only to sex work between consenting adults. Policing and prosecuting sex work does not keep our communities safe. Criminalization forces sex workers—who are disproportionately LGBTQI+, immigrants, and people of color—to work in the shadows and avoid legal remedies to violence and labor violations. Bills like the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act (S3075) would decriminalize sex work while upholding protections against human trafficking, rape, and the exploitation of minors.
- Decriminalize simple drug possession. Since the War on Drugs began, the federal government and New York State have treated drug use and addiction as moral failings to be deterred through punishment rather than as public health issues. Decades later, the United States has the highest per capita rate of incarceration while fatal overdoses are at an all-time high. I pledge to fight to pass S1284, and to treat substance use disorder as a disease, rather than a criminal behavior.
- Pass the Safer Consumption Services Act and decriminalize life-saving medications. Over the past decade, the overdose crisis has reached epidemic levels in the United States and New York is no exception. Over 1,400 New Yorkers have died of preventable overdoses every year since 2015, with 5,680 New Yorkers lost from September 2020–2021. Overdose within Black and Brown communities in particular has continued to rise and access to services remains fraught with barriers. We can begin to fight this by allowing the New York State Department of Health to authorize community-based organizations to operate as safer consumption spaces (SCS), where people can legally consume previously purchased criminalized drugs with supervision from trained staff as well as access healthcare services, counseling, and social services (S603). Additionally, we can de-criminalize life-saving buprenorphine, (S2524) which is used as a standard of care to treat opioid use disorder (OUD). This legislation would place buprenorphine on par with marijuana and ensure New York is not prosecuting individuals who are attempting to treat an opioid use disorder.
Fight for Just Budgets That Do Not Incarcerate Our Communities
At a time when New York City spends billions of dollars on its police force, more than most countries spend on their militaries, I will always be a strong advocate for defunding the police and investing in our communities. This past year has been difficult. In New York City, it is unacceptable that the City government voted this year to defund public schools while it increased police budgets. In New York State more generally, when Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul attempted to use New York State’s opaque budget process to roll back criminal legal system reforms that we had won in recent years, using dishonest arguments and fear tactics, I organized with my colleagues in the New York State Senate to fight back. Although we did not win all of our battles this past year, I am proud to have fought against all attempts to misuse our budget process to criminalize our communities. I vow to keep on fighting and organizing each and every year to ensure that we have budgets that invest in our communities rather than incarcerate our neighbors.
End Wealth Extraction in Our Communities
As James Baldwin said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Institutions like cash bail and predatory court fees merely serve as a way to keep milking poor people for money at their lowest moments, and do not promote safety. And, despite all the fear-mongering from the right wing this past year, we know that the 2019 laws we passed to move away from the current cash bail system have been working. If we believe people truly are innocent until proven guilty, we cannot go backwards. I will continue to fight against attempts to re-institute failed cash bail policies, and will support legislation to:
- End the Predatory Court Fees Act. Daily, we arrest and cage people and/or enter damaging civil money judgments against them because they cannot pay mandatory court fees and surcharges in traffic or criminal cases. This is a system of taxation predominately levied on Black and brown communities and those who cannot afford to pay such fines. These fees and surcharges were created by the legislature solely to raise money for the state budget and to do so in the most regressive manner possible. This is why I co-sponsor S3979C, which would abolish court, parole, and probation fees, as well as mandatory minimum fines, wipe out all civil judgements or arrest warrants based on these fees, and end these practices of police-as-revenue generators.
- Decriminalize fare evasion. Criminalizing fare evasion sets up an unjust racist and classist double standard; car drivers who don’t pay their parking meter get a parking ticket, while subway riders who don’t pay their fare get arrested. I will fight to pass S8115, which will decriminalize fare evasion by lowering the act from a misdemeanor to a violation.
- Completely eliminate cash bail. The 2019 bail reform bill was a step in the right direction, but we all knew at the time that we could do better. Eliminating cash bail for some cases still allows for the injustice to continue in the rest. Whether a person is accused of pick-pocketing or murder, the amount of money in their bank account shouldn’t determine whether they walk free or spend weeks, months, or years in jail awaiting trial. I pledge to continue the fight to eliminate the cash bail in New York State and put an end to the criminalization of poverty.
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