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Struggle for Justice

A More Just New York

The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is a cornerstone of our justice system. But each year, accused people sit behind bars — away from friends, family, school, and work — simply because they can’t afford bail. Slow and backlogged courts drag out the time between allegation and a trial date, sometimes for years, and unfair evidence-sharing rules prevent defendants from effectively preparing and making informed decisions about their cases.

These injustices impact tens of thousands of New Yorkers. The NYCLU has long called for reforms to our pretrial system, and in 2016, we became an active partner in JustLeadershipUSA’s #FREEnewyork campaign. Uniting a coalition of more than 130 civil rights organizations, #FREEnewyork allowed us to marshal resources and strategies needed to bring the cruelty of our pretrial system to light for the public and policymakers. We helped pen multiple letters to the governor about the reforms, released reports designed to educate the public and policymakers about the need for reforms, and in February, coordinated a day of action in Albany to meet with the press and elected officials with activists, advocates and volunteers.

In addition, we anchored #FREEnewyork’s legislative committee, leading its advocacy for bail, discovery, and speedy trial reform for the 2019 legislative session. In this role, we offered legal guidance to lawmakers drafting reform language, and we worked with a broad coalition of longstanding partners to ensure a wide range of voices were represented in these conversations. As part of the state’s FY2020 budget, lawmakers enacted the Pretrial Justice Reform Act, providing the following sweeping reforms to our criminal pretrial system:

  • Bail reform ends cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, making it less likely that race and wealth will influence a person’s time spent in jail. This should mean that thousands of New Yorkers accused of crimes will not have to spend time in jail because they can’t pay bail.
  • Discovery reform allows New Yorkers to mount a stronger defense when accused of a crime. Before, prosecutors hid vital information from defendants until the day of trial. Now New York’s system is one of the fairest in the country, requiring prosecutors to share evidence with defendants soon after their arrest. This will give people the information they need to decide how and whether to fight their cases.
  • Speedy trial reform closes a loophole that allowed prosecutors to deny people’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. Previously, prosecutors were able to stop the clock on the time it took for a trial to begin simply by stating they were “ready” for trial, which often kept defendants awaiting their day in court for months or even years. In some cases, New Yorkers awaited trial longer than they would have served for their alleged crime’s maximum sentence.

These are historic victories, and our opposition is already hard at work trying to erode them: In November, the New York State Sheriffs Association, the State Associations of District Attorneys, and chiefs of police held press conferences across the state attacking these reforms and calling on the legislature to delay their implementation. Some released op-eds claiming that money bail keeps the country safe—a reprehensible falsehood that ties a person’s liberty to the size of their bank account.

This fearmongering campaign led by New York law enforcement officials was unfortunately effective enough to convince lawmakers to make changes in April 2020. Though we were successful in convincing the Legislature to leave out some of the most regressive proposals, the revised bill added more than a dozen crimes to the list of charges that allow someone to be jailed before trial.

Photo: Advocates fill the stairs of the Capitol Building in Albany to call for criminal justice reform.

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The NYCLU continues to fight for criminal justice reforms, even more critical in the wake of COVID-19. Read about our work on behalf of incarcerated New Yorkers, including our lawsuit demanding opportunities for release of people jailed in New York City for alleged parole violations.