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Criminal Defense

BDS CALLS FOR AN NYC COUNCIL HEALTH COMMITTEE HEARING ON HEALINGNYC’S ALLOCATION OF OPIOID OVERDOSE PREVENTION FUNDS TO THE NYPD

May 30, 2017

Hon. Corey Johnson

New York City Councilmember

224 West 30th Street, #1206

New York, NY 10001

 

Dear Council Member Johnson:

I write regarding recent news that the largest share of City funding for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new initiative to combat the opioid epidemic, HealingNYC, is slated to be allocated to the New York Police Department (NYPD).[1] I respectfully request that the New York City Council Committee on Health hold a public hearing on this funding allocation as well as the City’s attempt to pair a public health approach to problematic drug use with increasingly aggressive law enforcement tactics.

As Chair of the Committee on Health, you have been a leader in the fight to protect the health and wellbeing of New York City’s most vulnerable residents, most notably those in our jails on Rikers Island. You have also taken this city forward with funding for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to study safe injection facilities for intravenous drug users.

The opioid epidemic is among the most deadly forces in our city today, warranting a strong response from policymakers. I appreciate that Mayor de Blasio is spearheading an effort to expand the use of life-saving naloxone kits and medication-assisted treatment, as well as other important initiatives to reduce the stigma of addiction and mental illness. However, I am concerned this important work could be undermined by regressive law enforcement strategies that further marginalize, stigmatize and ultimately criminalize the very people the Administration seeks to support. Indeed, earlier this week, Crain’s reported that “nearly half of the $143.7 million budgeted for HealingNYC through fiscal year 2021 will go to the NYPD, mostly to step up arrests of drug dealers.” Much of the funding provided to the police will reportedly be used to investigate overdoses with the goal of bringing criminal charges against people alleged to have supplied the drugs.[2]

There is a growing recognition among policymakers of all parties, many of whom may struggle with addiction themselves or have friends or family members who struggle with addiction, that criminalization is an ineffective and, in fact, often very dangerous approach to drugs. These dangers are only heightened as police and prosecutors here and across the country pursue homicide-like charges or other very serious charges against alleged suppliers when overdoses do occur. Among many other serious risks, experts have noted that increased enforcement can discourage people who witness overdoses from calling 911 because suppliers are often close acquaintances and may even be the witnesses, themselves.

Even if a greater investment in law enforcement efforts against suppliers were an effective approach, the Council should consider whether it makes sense for those funds to come from HealingNYC or rather be diverted from other NYPD functions. For example, the most common drug arrest charge in 2016 was low-level marijuana possession, with 18,136 arrests. The disproportionate impact of these arrests aggravates racial and economic inequality in our society, undermines trust in our criminal legal system, and contravenes the beliefs of the majority of Americans (60 percent), who support full legalization of marijuana.[3] Moreover, research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that legally protected marijuana dispensaries were associated with reductions of 16 to 31 percent in opioid overdose deaths.[4] (HealingNYC seeks to reduce opioid deaths by 35 percent over the next 5 years.) Other experts have argued that the criminalization of marijuana led to the over-prescription and over-use of opioids and eventually the epidemic that we are struggling to address today. Simply put, marijuana seems to be a safer alternative to opioids in pain management, but criminalization undercuts that benefit.

At the Committee on Public Safety’s Executive Budget hearing on Monday, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said of the Department’s response to the epidemic: “Our focus is not on the individual addict. Our focus is on the street level as well as interdictions coming into the country.” Arrest data provided by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services does not support this statement. After low-level marijuana possession, the next most common NYPD drug arrest charge, or fifth most common arrest overall, in 2016 was low-level non-marijuana drug possession, or Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the 7th Degree, with 16,630 arrests. The most common drug sale arrest charge was Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the 3rd Degree, with 5,628 arrests, or approximately one-sixth of the number of low-level drug possession arrests.

We believe a public hearing on this critical subject would help to evaluate the efficacy of the different components of HealingNYC and facilitate greater transparency and accountability in our City’s overall approach to drug use.

Because City administration and agency officials generally are permitted to testify first at Council hearings, I ask in advance that the Council request testimony from NYPD with research to support the use of scarce public funds to disrupt the supply chain of heroin, fentanyl or other drugs.

Thank you for your consideration of my request.

Sincerely,

Lisa Schreibersdorf

Executive Director

Brooklyn Defender Services

 

[1] Caroline Lewis & Rosa Goldensohn. Will stepping up drug-dealer arrests help alleviate the opioid crisis? Crain’s New York Business (2017), http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20170522/HEALTH_CARE/170529996/nypd-gets-biggest-share-of-new-city-funding-to-fight-opioid-overdose-deaths (last visited May 30, 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Art Swift. Support for Legal Marijuana Use Up to 60% in U.S. (2016), http://www.gallup.com/poll/196550/support-legal-marijuana.aspx (last visited May 30, 2017).

[4] National Institute on Drug Abuse, Study Links Medical Marijuana Dispensaries to Reduced Mortality From Opioid Overdose NIDA (2016), https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2016/05/study-links-medical-marijuana-dispensaries-to-reduced-mortality-opioid-overdose (last visited May 30, 2017).

News

IN THE NEWS: NY TIMES – “DEFENDANTS KEPT IN THE DARK ABOUT EVIDENCE, UNTIL IT’S TOO LATE”

The New York Times and the Marshall Project collaborated to shed light on New York’s unjust “Blindfold Law,” which allows prosecutors to withhold key evidence until trial.  To improve fairness in the criminal legal system and prevent wrongful convictions, Brooklyn Defender Services and a coalition of partners are working to repeal and replace the Blindfold Law with new legislation.

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IN THE NEWS: THE ATLANTIC – WILL NEW YORK STOP ARRESTING PEOPLE FOR EVADING SUBWAY FARES?

The Atlantic published an article on new legislation proposed by State Sen. Jesse Hamilton  and Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright that would decriminalize turnstile jumping. “Instead of making the fiscally sound and just decision to help enhance access through reduced-fare Metro Cards or free Metro Cards, we do the opposite: We arrest; we lock people up,”  said BDS’ Scott Hechinger.

News

BDS CALLS FOR THE PASSAGE OF BILL TO ENSURE INCARCERATED WOMEN ACCESS TO FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS

Brooklyn Defender Services calls for the immediate passage of S.6176 (Little)/A. 588A (Rosenthal). The bill would require that all women who are incarcerated in New York State or City facilities have access to free feminine hygiene products.

Learn more about this critical issue in a recent N.Y. Times article featuring BDS Jail Services Social Worker Kelsey DeAvila.

A copy of our memo in support is here.

News

TAKE ACTION: HELP US END PERPETUAL PUNISHMENT

Being accused of a crime is just the beginning of “perpetual punishment”: a lifelong cycle of legalized discrimination, structural poverty, and re-incarceration. This cycle is kept in motion by 47,000 laws and regulations nationwide that restrict critical rights and opportunities.

But we know how to break the cycle: Remove the barriers and empower people.

Watch PERPETUAL PUNISHMENT, a short animated film by Molly Crabapple and presented by Brooklyn Defender Services and Vox:

Check out a follow-up Q&A with Wes Caines, the film’s narrator, on Vox Voices here.

Here in New York, there are five bills in the State Legislature that would dramatically change the punishment paradigm, and we need YOU to push your local representatives to get these bills enacted into law.

  • ‘Ban the Box’ on Job & Higher Education Applications – Pass A.3050 & A.1792/S.3740! Approximately 7.1 million New Yorkers, or 36%, have criminal records that affect them for the rest of their lives. Many people were convicted when young, or were incarcerated on bail and took a plea to get out. Many were never arrested again, years or even decades later. The conviction subjects these fellow New Yorkers to discrimination in employment and education that affects them and their families forever under current New York law and costs taxpayers money in the long run for public assistance and reduced taxes that these people would contribute if earning at their potential. These bills help to provide New Yorkers with a real chance at success by prohibiting job and higher education discrimination based on criminal convictions.
  • Reform NY’s Discovery Law to Prevent Wrongful Convictions – Pass S.3334! In New York, unlike most of the rest of the country, prosecutors and police are not required to provide police reports to the attorney representing a person facing criminal allegations at the earliest point so that defense counsel can investigate the case. This contributes to wrongful convictions and elongates the time our clients stay in jail waiting for a trial. The sad case of Kalief Browder is an example of someone whose time at Rikers Island would have been dramatically shortened or eliminated if his attorney had the information on the case. In civil cases and other cases in New York, “Discovery” is provided quickly and comprehensively. Yet we treat people who are in jail or facing serious allegations as if they do not deserve to have a fair defense.  It is no coincidence that New York is 3rd in the country in wrongful convictions. This bill will repeal an outdated law and replace it with a just and fair discovery law.
  • Sealing Criminal Records – Pass S.4027! New York is one of the only states in the nation with no sealing or expungement law, meaning even people convicted of the lowest level criminal offenses have a permanent criminal record. Many of the most debilitating collateral consequences of contact with the criminal justice system could be reduced through a robust sealing law that allows people to move beyond their punishment after a reasonable time period.
  • Seal All Low-Level Marijuana Possession Convictions – Pass A.2142/S.3809! In 1977, the NYS Legislature passed the Marihuana Reform Act, decriminalizing personal possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, but the law still allows for arrest and prosecution of those with marijuana in “public view.” In practice, low-level marijuana possession remains one of the top arrest charges in New York; more than 800,000 New Yorkers have criminal records for this offense in the last 20 years. 9 in 10 arrested for this offense are people of color, despite roughly equal rates of marijuana use across demographics. This bill would simply seal these records and remove the senseless barriers they face in education, employment, housing opportunities, and other state services. While there is not currently a bill pending, you should also ask your legislators to support full marijuana legalization!
  • Stop Criminalizing Workers for Carrying Their Tools Pass A.05667A/S.4769! Tens of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly people of color and/or immigrants, have been prosecuted for being in possession of—either on their person, or somewhere in their car or home—an instrument they use peacefully in the workplace, simply because it meets the technical legal definition of a “gravity knife.” True gravity knives, banned in New York in the 1950’s, have been extinct for some time, but the definition included in the law has allowed for the criminalization of workers—often stagehands, carpenters or stockroom employees—simply for carrying tools that they purchased at hardware and other common retail stores and that they use on their job. This bill would change the law to clarify that simple tools, used peacefully, are not weapons.

Find your NYS Legislator by entering your address here: www.openstates.org.

The best way to make your elected representatives hear you is to call, not email! Call them today and ask for their support for these three bills.

News

BDS TESTIFIES AT CITY COUNCIL ON REDUCING JAIL POPULATION

Brooklyn Defender Services strongly supports the City’s efforts to reduce the number of people who await trial on Rikers Island. In 2015, 67,672 people were admitted to New York City jails, with an average daily population of 10,240.[1] During this period, approximately 13,100 people arraigned in Brooklyn courts spent time on Rikers Island, 89% of who were identified as “African-American” or “Hispanic.”[2] Roughly 75 percent of people on any given day at Rikers Island are there in pretrial detention – presumed innocent under the law and ostensibly waiting for their day in court. Yet the reality is that judges and prosecutors are just waiting for them to plead guilty.

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News

BDS TESTIFIES AT CITY COUNCIL ON CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REVIEW BOARD & POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY

Never before in the history of our organization has police accountability been so prominently an issue of popular national importance. Just four years ago drag-net Stop & Frisk was being defended as an essential policing tactic, responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives despite research that questioned this causality and obvious constitutional concerns. While we welcome the national, progressive attention on these issues, to which our clients are often at the receiving end, we must acknowledge how we got here: long-standing police abuses coming into the light due to lawsuits, civilian documentation and protest. The deaths of Eric Garner and Ramarley Graham at the hands of the New York Police Department, and the public’s perception of a lack of accountability for the officers involved, especially as compared to the extensive punishment regimes for civilians in criminal court, have driven a significant interest in this topic both locally, nationally, and even internationally.  More

News

IT JUST GOT HARDER TO GET ARRESTED FOR POT IN NEW YORK CITY

Mayor de Blasio announced on Monday that the NYPD will no longer arrest people caught with small amounts of marijuana, issuing summonses instead. Advocates expressed cautious support.

NEW YORK CITY — The New York Police Department will no longer arrest people for low-level marijuana possession, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton announced in a press conference on Monday.

The NYPD will issue violation summonses to people caught with small amounts marijuana, instead of putting them in handcuffs and taking them to a precinct. The summonses will require people to appear in court at a later date and pay a fine.

The policy, which will go into effect on Nov. 19, will not protect people who are found with more than 25 grams of marijuana, those who are smoking in public, or those caught with the drug near schools or playgrounds, the officials said. People who have open warrants, are subject to an active investigation, or do do not have proper identification could also be arrested.

Speaking at the press conference, Mayor de Blasio said that the new policy is intended to refocus the attention of police officers away from petty offenses and toward more serious crimes.

“When an individual gets arrested for even the smallest quantity of marijuana it hurts their chances to get a good job, to get housing, to qualify for a student loan,” de Blasio said. “This policy will allow officers to continue on with their work and to put more time and energy into fighting more serious crime rather than get bogged down with an unproductive arrest.”

The new policy could bring about a sea change in the way the city is policed. Misdemeanor-level marijuana possession accounts for a large percentage of the city’s arrests, a vast majority of which happen to young black or Latino men living in poor neighborhoods.

“This is a huge improvement,” Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, told BuzzFeed News. “Summonses don’t get you fingerprinted. This will be better for people who are vulnerable to collateral consequences, like immigrants.”

Still, Schreibersdorf cautioned that the policy will not fulfill its goal unless the NYPD relaxes its identification requirements for summonses. Immigrants and teenagers often do not carry valid identification, she said, which often means that they cannot be processed for a summons. She added that the policy change does not address what she called the root cause of the problem — police officers in New York routinely stopping people without probable cause.

“Having summonses is an improvement for people who are already being stopped, but that doesn’t mean they should be stopped in the first place,” she said. “The problem, from my perspective, is that stopping people without cause is unconstitutional.”

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BlogNews

REDUCING POPULATION AT RIKERS ISLAND IS THE NECESSARY FIRST STEP FOR REFORM

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We are encouraged that the New York City Council is discussing issues of brutality and neglect on Rikers Island and is seeking to hold accountable the public and private officials tasked with managing these facilities. It seems there is widespread agreement that the status quo in City jails is untenable. However, we are concerned efforts for reform will fall short if City Government continues to avoid addressing the primary driver of many of these problems – too many admissions to jails in the first place.

Read more on our Huffington Post Blog

News

BDS IN THE NEWS: WHY DID POLICE ARREST THIS MAN IN FRONT OF HIS KIDS AT ERIC GARNER’S FUNERAL

On Friday, Staten Island resident Eric Garner’s death was officially ruled a homicide. For the last two weeks, New York City has been roiled by video of him gasping his last words—“I can’t breathe!”—after an NYPD officer put him in a choke-hold while arresting him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. At Garner’s funeral on July 23 at Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, reporters and news crews swarmed the block, interviewing relatives, high-profile guests like the Reverend Al Sharpton, and other attendees.

What the local press didn’t see that evening, and what has gone unreported until now, is that police officers chose the funeral of a man whose death in police custody has put the NYPD on the defensive to make another, very public arrest of a guy who wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time.

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BlogNews

POLICYMAKERS MUST INCLUDE INCARCERATED PEOPLE IN JAIL REFORM PROCESS

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The New York City Council is investigating mental health services and violence on Rikers Island and in other city jails as recent media reports have renewed the public’s interest on this topic. At a recent oversight hearing conducted by the council, mayoral officials, union leaders, corrections officers, civilians working in city jails and other advocates testified to their experiences. Notably absent from the discussion were people with personal experience inside the cell blocks; with 120,000 people each year churning through city jails — over 1 million over the past ten years — it seemed incongruous that the Criminal Justice and Mental Health Committees of the City Council had not included these voices. The City Council legal department has declined to provide us with the list of official invitees to the hearing.

More than 75 percent of the people on Rikers Island and in other city jails are not in custody due to a conviction. They are in jail on bail, sometimes as low as $250, because they cannot afford to meet this cash obligation. According to the Criminal Justice Agency, just 12 percent of people accused of misdemeanors are able to post bail at arraignments. Prosecutorial requests for bail and the choice to insist on cash bail when other options are legally viable, is a matter of public policy. And so we have decided to place people accused of the most minor of crimes in jail solely because they have been locked out of the social and economic resources and opportunities that would otherwise enable them to post a couple of hundred dollars as collateral. A recent Vera Institute report on the Manhattan District Attorney’s office found that race plays a significant factor in making bail determinations.

A homeless man arrested for trespassing, like Jerome Murdough who unable to pay $2500 bail subsequently died in a Rikers Island solitary confinement cell, is more likely to be held in city jails than a Bernie Madoff, a Richard Haste, a John Gotti. And it is these indigent people who are subjected to solitary confinement and other abuses in city jails.

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The following narratives have been collected by Brooklyn Defender Services‘ Jail Services. Our hope is that their voices will be included as the City moves toward policy changes that will most directly impact those people in our city who are accused of committing specific categories of crimes and unable to afford bail. In addition to these three stories, there are literally thousands of others, which thus far have gone unheard to most of the public. Names, dates and identifying information have been necessarily changed to prevent retaliation against those clients who may remain in City custody.

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Blog

SNAIL-PACED REFORMS AT CITY JAILS ARE UNACCEPTABLE

Every year more than 300,000 people are arrested in New York City and roughly 100,000 people cycle through the city jail system at a cost to the taxpayer of $167,731 per incarcerated person per year. Most people held on Rikers Island and other borough specific facilities — 75 percent — are awaiting the disposition of their cases and are, thus by law, innocent.  More