Before the state’s $175.5 billion budget deal was completed last Sunday, constituents of State Sen. Todd Kaminsky held a demonstration outside his Rockville Centre office on March 26. Among the protesters were members of the activist groups New York Communities for Change and Bend the Arc. Demonstrators spoke with the Herald about the importance of passing legislation that would reduce pretrial incarceration in New York state.
“I see this as the main civil rights issue in New York state at this particular time,” said West Hempstead resident Joe Varon. “I’ve taught for 36 years at public schools in New York. I’ve visited many young men at Riker’s Island who were jailed for crimes like having pot or stealing from a store. The money that we pay to lock up these kids can be used for a billion other things, and it is such a waste.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers agreed on bail reform that would result in the elimination of cash bail for about 90 percent of cases. They also reached a deal to reform the criminal discovery process — the period during which a defendant obtains evidence before a trial — and to ensure that trials happen faster. Last year, Nassau County ran up roughly $150 million in jail-related costs, according to the advocacy group Just Leadership USA. In addition, New York state spends $42 million each year to jail misdemeanor defendants held on bail of $1,000 or less. Protesters said that the issue has gone unaddressed for too long in Nassau County.
“It’s pretty well known that the mass incarceration system is like the new Jim Crow, and it’s a way to disenfranchise people from participation in society,” said Ben Britton, of Lynbrook, a member of New York Communities for Change. “It’s really being used in a way that disadvantages black and brown folks. There’s a bunch of subjective standards that are used to gauge whether or not folks are a risk to the community, and I think that’s really unfair.”
Rockville Centre resident Nathan Stange said that last year’s average population of jail cells in Nassau County was a little more than 1,000. Of that, 76 percent were incarcerated pretrial. He also said that 98 percent of criminal cases are resolved by plea deal.
“Most people are going to take that plea deal, but they have this black mark on their record that makes everything harder from here on out,” Stange said. “This issue might not be on a lot of people’s radars, but this is a critical time to raise awareness because it’s affecting our communities.”
Leading up to the budget deal, protesters told the Herald that they have addressed this issue with the Long Island Senate majority, which includes Kaminsky, on several occasions, but there was no response. Calls requesting comment from Kaminsky’s office were not returned by press time.
William Bailey, an African-American who is also a member of NYCC, said that seeing how minorities are treated in jail makes him fearful. “Even though I’ve never been in any trouble with the law, whenever I see a cop in the streets, I’m afraid,” said Bailey, of Elmont. “I have all my stuff together, but you just never know.”
Bailey added that many people who go through the jail system are afraid, and because they are unsure of what to do, they take a plea deal. “The problem is, you have to put that on your [job] application,” Bailey said. “You can’t hide that, so your life won’t be the same after that.”