Ronald Day, Associate Vice President of DRCPP at The Fortune Society

The Right Priorities for Criminal Justice Reform

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Fortune Society applauds Governor Cuomo as he continues to take much-needed steps to reform the criminal justice system and support reentry efforts.

Recently, he announced a strategy to offer an official pardon to approximately ten thousand qualifying individuals. Candidates include those who were: (1) 16 or 17 years old at the time of conviction, (2) convicted of non-violent felonies or misdemeanors, and (3) have not been convicted of any additional crimes in at least 10 years.

The pardons are meant to level the playing field for people who face discrimination based on their juvenile criminal records. While it is true that today arrests for individuals 18 and under frequently result in youth offender status (not a criminal conviction), many people can benefit from this pardon plan for convictions dating back at least 10 years. In a state that offers no expungement for criminal convictions, this pardon plan provides vital relief for qualifying individuals.

This pardon plan comes on the heels of Governor Cuomo’s failed attempt to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old in New York State. The Governor realizes the necessity to eliminate cases of 16 and 17 year olds from the adult criminal justice system. Indeed, North Carolina and New York are the only two states that still charge 16 and 17 year olds in adult criminal court. The Republican-led State Senate blocked the raise the age legislation, meaning the criminal court system will continue to process juvenile arrests for 16 and 17 year olds instead of the family court system. Although Governor Cuomo was not able to raise the age during his first attempt, he has reintroduced the legislation and this pardon plan shows his perseverance and determination to reform the criminal justice system.

A few days ago, the Governor made another huge splash at the State of the State and Budget Address. He promised an additional $1 million of new funding to expand alternatives to incarceration (ATI) programming. This is a critical step to reform the criminal justice system and help reduce the number of incarcerated individuals. For example, Fortune’s rigorous ATI programs reduce the prison and jail population, save taxpayers millions of dollars, and each year help hundreds of men and women learn how to lead crime-free, productive lives. Thank you Governor Cuomo for recognizing the benefits ATI programs have state-wide.

The Governor also made a historic commitment to supportive housing by committing to fund 20,000 units of supportive housing statewide over the next 15 years. This commitment, combined with that of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 15,000 units of supportive housing in New York City, means a total pledge to create 35,000 units of supportive housing in New York State, the largest commitment to supportive housing in the country. Supportive housing serves an integral role in the fight to end homelessness and create new housing opportunities for vulnerable New Yorkers. Our residents at The Fortune Academy (Castle) and Castle Gardens are proof that supportive housing is a necessary staple to successful reentry and rehabilitation.

In addition, Governor Cuomo proposed a plan to offer college courses to eligible people in prison with three to five years remaining before release. He proposed a similar program two years ago, but he scraped the plan when it met fierce resistance by some republicans who argued that “Kids Before Cons” deserved state resources. This campaign movement was so strong that it thwarted the Governor’s initial efforts. This time around, the Governor has a buffer to offer resources to prisons. The state will not rely on public dollars to fund the initiative. Instead, the program will be funded using $7.5 million dollars of forfeiture money from District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, and another $7.5 million in private funds. The program will offer classes to 1,000 people over the next five years.

Because there is clear and convincing evidence about the benefits of a college degree, it is really a shame that it has taken so long for this plan to come to fruition. Then again, politics is not about what makes sense, it’s about what makes sense politically, which frequently doesn’t make sense at all.

It is worth noting that these reforms did not come about through osmosis. Accolades to the Governor, his staff, Cyrus Vance, and the NY County DA’s office. These victories, however, belong to the organizations that advocated for years to reform the criminal justice system through sensible policy solutions. These advancements belong to the individuals, families, and communities who will benefit significantly from access to greater opportunities.

Congratulations, your efforts are finally being rewarded!

Categories: Community, Policy + Advocacy

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