On March 1, learn what criminal justice reform is about: Stern

Original article appeared in Lohud and was written by Gary Stern at 6:30 p.m. ET on Feb. 19, 2018.

At long last, momentum is building to address fundamental problems with our criminal justice system.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing a revamping of our discriminatory bail system, new requirements for prosecutors to share key evidence with defendants, and procedural changes to get cases resolved faster (as required by the U.S. Constitution). Westchester DA Anthony Scarpino has announced that his prosecutors, like those of the Manhattan and Brooklyn DAs, have stopped asking judges to set cash bail in most misdemeanor criminal cases. And a state Supreme Court justice in Poughkeepsie recently ruled that setting pre-trial bail without considering an individual’s ability to pay violates the U.S. and New York state constitutions.

These moves come less than a year after the state Legislature finally passed a law that will treat most 16- and 17-year-old defendants in New York State as minors, instead of forcing them into the adult court system. Advocacy groups played a major role in fighting for #RaisetheAge legislation and will continue to monitor the complex implementation of new requirements.

One of those groups, the Westchester Children’s Association, is putting on an important program on Thursday, March 1 at Pace Law School in White Plains that will touch on the key criminal-justice issues being discussed across New York today. The Journal News/lohud is proud to be a co-sponsor and I’ll be moderating the program.

A Dutchess judge, Westchester’s DA and others force a look at the societal cost of cash bail for non-violent criminal charges. Video by Nancy Cutler/lohud Wochit

The 5:30 p.m. program will begin with a showing of “Rikers: An American Jail,” a riveting, new documentary about Riker’s Island, New York City’s main jail complex. The film, headed by Bill Moyers, explains that almost 80 percent of the roughly 7,500 people detained at Rikers on any given day have not been convicted of a crime. Some will never be. More than half of the detainees are there because they cannot afford bail, often less than $1,000.

In jails across New York, about 60 percent of those incarcerated have not yet had trials, according to Cuomo’s office.

Rikers is infamous for violence and chaos. The film, a little less than an hour long, lets former inmates tell their stories and describe their experiences. You won’t forget some of them. As Moyers says, “What happens to the people inside is done in our name, with our dollars.”

 “We are using the screening of the documentary RIKERS as a backdrop for the urgency of fixing New York’s justice system for our youth,” said Allison Lake, deputy director of the WCA. “We want to challenge elected officials, county stakeholders and the public to use the opportunity of new ‘raise the age’ legislation to a make a difference in the lives of youth.”

The second half of the program will feature an excellent panel of experts who will discuss issues raised in the film, as well as what it will take for New York State to successfully “raise the age” of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. The legislation requires that 16-year-old defendants will be treated as “adolescent offenders” starting on Oct. 1, and 17-year-olds starting one year later.

This means that misdemeanor cases — about 70 percent of cases against 16- and 17-year-olds — will go to Family Court instead of Criminal Court. Juveniles charged with felonies will start off in a new “youth part” of Criminal Court, with most nonviolent cases transferred to Family Court within 30 days. Juveniles accused of violent felonies (about 1 percent) could see their cases diverted to regular Criminal Court.

Successful implementation, though, means having appropriate facilities to detain 16- and 17-year-old defendants, providing community-based services for the teens, training judges, and more. WCA Executive Director Cora Greenberg said that while there is $100 million in Cuomo’s budget proposal for “raise the age” implementation, there is no information on how the money will be spent.

 “This long awaited reform, if implemented correctly, has the potential to improve the lives of youth, increase public safety and make New York’s judicial system more fair and just for all young people,” Greenberg said. “The devil is in the details and WCA looks forward to working with the many stakeholders in the county to raise the age correctly and give our youth a second chance.”

Scheduled to appear on the panel are:

  • Ismael Nazario of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit group that supports former inmates. Nazario, who is featured in the film, was sent to Rikers as a teen, spending 300 days in solitary confinement before he was convicted of a crime.
  • Justin Pruyne, acting commissioner of corrections for Westchester County.
  • Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children’s Village, a residential treatment center and school in Dobbs Ferry serving vulnerable children from troubled backgrounds.
  • Hon. Mary Anne Scattaretico-Naber, a Westchester Family Court judge.
  • Rocco Pozzi, the longtime commissioner of probation for Westchester County.

There will be a question-and-answer period with the panelists, a great opportunity for those interested in the details of criminal-justice reform.

The program is free. But registration is required at: http://bit.ly/RTArikers.

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