It was hard to miss the anti-fracking rally at the Empire State Plaza concourse when Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented his 2014 State of State address last Wednesday (Jan. 8). The thousands of people waving signs and shouting catchy phrases to denounce hydrofracking were quite a presence in the narrow hallways of the underground epicenter of downtown Albany. But perhaps less noticed were activists from the group Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration, who also demonstrated, but did so in the hopes of raising awareness for parole reform and the way we treat incarceration in New York state.
“Mass incarceration a leading social injustice of our time,” said Naomi Jaffe, who is a founding member of this group and the New York State Prisoner Justice Network.
“Five years ago when [the NYSPJN] started, the issue of incarceration was invisible,” she added. “Now the landscape has changed immensely and the public dialogue has changed.” She noted that the changes had become most evident within the past two years.
At this particular SOS address, Cuomo said: “We have good news on the criminal justice front. The good news is crime is down and our prisons have fewer people in them. We are reducing the madness of an incarceration society and ending a system of unnecessary human and financial waste. And now we have eliminated 5,500 prison beds.
“The bad news is there is a revolving door where 40 percent of the people who are released from prison wind back up in prison,” he continued. “We need to provide the reentry support and services like job training and access to key services to ease that transition into mainstream society. Reducing recidivism means less crime, it means safer communities, it means fewer taxpayer doors spent on incarceration. Let’s stop the revolving door once and for all: Let’s create a reentry council that brings together all the state resources and coordinates them so we make those transitions effective and lasting.”
Jaffe said that it was “gratifying” that Cuomo mentioned the issue of incarceration in New York state and that a commission to help those going from prison back to the outside was “urgently needed.”
Cuomo also said: “Our juvenile justice laws are outdated. Under New York state law, 16 and 17 year olds can be tried and charged as adults. Only one other state in the nation does that; it’s the state of North Carolina. It’s not right, it’s not fair—we must raise the age. Let’s form a commission on youth public safety and justice and let’s get it done this year.”
Jaffe also noted that there was a lot that Cuomo left out during his speech. “The governor has moved very slowly on some important issues,” she said. “It’s great to be raising age when juveniles are adjudicated—there are still certain felonies where 13-year-old kids are tried as adults. He said last year that the prison system is not a job system—and that hasn’t changed. It is still relied on for employment, particularly in rural areas in this state. He didn’t close any maximum security prisons, and none north of Albany.”
At last year’s SOS address, Cuomo said: “There is a challenge posed by the ‘stop and frisk’ police policies. Roughly 50,000 arrests in New York City for marijuana possession, more than any other possession. Of those 50,000 arrests, 82 percent are black and Hispanic. Of the 82 percent that are black and Hispanic, 69 percent are under the age of 30 years old. These are young, predominately black and Hispanic males.”
“There needs to be drug law reform, and the marijuana law [Cuomo] proposed is extremely narrow,” said Jaffe. “These are entry points into the prison system for young people, especially people of color. In the stop-and-frisk drug laws, marijuana possession is supposed to be a violation and not a misdemeanor unless it’s in plain view. But in a stop and frisk, police insist kids turn out their pockets and kids don’t know that they can refuse.”
She, and others in her organizations, would like to see the governor address parole reform and the use of solitary confinement as well. “At the end of minimum sentence, prisoners go before a parole board, and in the case of most, some who have done 20, 30, and 40 years, and they have done everything they can possibly do—education, a good record—regardless, the parole board is turning them down. It makes a mockery of parole. There are a huge number of people in prison who have proven over and over that they are not a threat to community and they are being denied.”
“I think that there are around 8,000 people in solitary confinement at any given moment in New York state,” she added. “They don’t always call it that, sometimes it’s called special housing unit, lockdown, or administrative lockdown. The United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez considers that over 15 days of solitary confinement is torture, and the practice is very, very widespread use in New York state for the most minor of infractions.”
That Cuomo didn’t reference all of these issues was disappointing to those who advocate for reform, but the dialogue seems to at least be moving in the right direction. “We have a tendency to try to solve every social problem by incarceration,” said Jaffe. “It doesn’t work, and we are starting to talk about it.”