More Criminal Justice Reform Measures Enacted in New York

By Peter Ward

As many of you know from an editorial we published in Hotel Voice in 2017, our union has been working closely with the Innocence Project on criminal justice reform. It is my belief that this is the single most important civil rights issue in the United States, followed closely by immigration reform. The unfair incarceration of poor, disadvantaged and working class people who disproportionately are Black and Latino is a stain on the soul of our country.

When we first began to work with the Innocence Project, the thought was that we could help in three areas. First, and most obvious, was simply raising money. Second was to help unjustly incarcerated people who are clients of the Innocence Project find work in union hotels to help them re-enter society. The third was to assist on legislative matters the Innocence Project seeks along with other advocates in the criminal justice world to change unjust laws that invest far too much power in police and prosecutors.

It may surprise many of you to know that New York has historically been among one of the worst states in the U.S. in terms of its laws surrounding the arrest, interrogation, rules of evidence
and trials for criminal defendants. To add insult to injury, New York State has an unfair cash bail system that incarcerates tens of thousands of people for non-violent offenses even though they pose no flight risk.

Over the last few years our union has helped raise a considerable amount of money for the
Innocence Project and has helped a half dozen wrongly convicted people find work. But most
importantly we have also played an outsized role in bringing about criminal justice reform.

As we reported to you in 2017, HTC was instrumental in lobbying the legislature and Governor Cuomo to change how interrogations were done in New York State. This change created a fair recorded version of police conduct when they obtain confessions. In that same year, significant reform was made around police line-ups, a powerful tool used unfairly in the conviction of our fellow citizens. In addition, we addressed another inequity in New York, which was one of the last two states in the U.S. that tried all 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. Working with the Innocence Project and other criminal justice reform advocates, HTC again played an important role in raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years of age.

We are happy to say that we made more progress the following year. In 2018, HTC joined in the successful fight for the establishment of a commission that reviews charges of prosecutorial misconduct and empowers the Governor to sanction and/or remove prosecutors, if necessary. This commission is the first of its kind in the United States!

This year was more ambitious than ever, as we attempted to change laws related to speedy trials, bail reform and discovery rights. On Monday, April 1, Governor Cuomo signed new laws into effect that addressed all three issues, creating an environment where criminal defendants cannot be incarcerated unfairly while awaiting trial and without having to endure unreasonably long lengths of time for access to the alleged evidence gathered in their cases.

The reform of these three issues, along with the reforms in the previous two years, constitute sweeping change in the way the criminal justice system in New York State treats its poor, disadvantaged and working class citizens.

All of us can take a great sense of pride in our union’s many accomplishments over the last number of years, but there is no accomplishment that I personally am more proud of than these criminal justice reforms. Let me explain why.

First, institutions like unions have a responsibility to do more than just advocate for the relatively small group of workers they represent on a day-to-day basis in the work place. Our work should be dedicated to changing and improving conditions in society that our members, their families and
other working people need.

Second, and perhaps most important, is that all of our accomplishments, including these recent criminal justice reforms, could not have happened without the strong efforts of everyone working at the union and especially you, our members. I said the following in the July, 2017 edition of Hotel Voice after we had enjoyed our first successes in achieving criminal justice reform legislation, and it holds true once again: “A big thanks is owed to you, the members of our union. By attending rallies, canvassing neighborhoods, showing up at public hearings, registering voters, phone banking and engaging in other activism, you have helped provide the union — and yourselves —with the reputation of power that can result in good things.”

We can now add additional criminal justice reform measures to that long list of good things.