Activists press state Democrats on mass incarceration 

Come January, Democrats will have control of both chambers in the New York State Legislature. And social justice groups across the state view the power shift as an opportunity to fight mass incarceration and reform state court and prison policies.

The Rochester Alliance of Communities Transforming Society (Roc/ACTS) is joining with groups across the state to call on the Assembly, Senate, and Governor Andrew Cuomo to enact a list of specific legislation. Among them are bills to legalize and tax marijuana, eliminate the use of cash bail, restore voting rights to incarcerated people and parolees, and allow the state parole board to consider release for any inmate over 55 who has served a sentence of at least 15 years.

One bill would require prosecutors to automatically provide defendants access to all evidence against them. Currently, defendants have to request specific evidence from prosecutors during the pre-trial discovery process.

Another bill would restrict the amount of time an inmate can be kept in solitary confinement, restrict the circumstances under which an inmate can be put in solitary, and prohibit solitary confinement of inmates under 21 or over 55, inmates who are pregnant, and inmates with certain health conditions or disabilities.

Roc/ACTS – an interfaith social justice organization with members from urban and suburban congregations – held a press conference last week to bring attention to the agenda, as did other organizations across New York. Betty Hancock and Kathleen FitzPatrick, who co-chair the group's Criminal Justice Task Force, focused their remarks on solitary confinement.

Many inmates are sent to solitary for minor infractions, and some are held in isolation for extended periods of time, Hancock said in an interview last week. They're allowed out of their cells for only an hour a day and have very little contact with other people. Researchers have found that solitary confinement can have severe and lasting effects on a person's mental health.

"We're very concerned about the humanitarian aspect of solitary confinement," Hancock said.

JustLeadershipUSA, the organization behind the #FREEnewyork campaign, also signed on to the agenda. The campaign advocates for bail, discovery, and speedy-trial reforms. On

Friday, the organization held a truth commission event at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church to draw awareness to those issues, as well as local police accountability work.

Ashley Gantt, the Rochester organizer for JustLeadershipUSA, says the current discovery process prevents defendants – especially poorer defendants represented by time-pressed public defenders – from putting together an effective defense or making informed decisions about pleading guilty. Defense attorneys have to request evidence from prosecutors once they're aware of it, or base it on guesses about what prosecutors have, Gantt says.

The #FREEnewyork campaign is calling on the state to explore other, more equitable forms of bail and to eliminate cash bail, Gantt says.

Social justice and civil rights groups have long argued that New York's cash bail system goes against the fundamental underpinning of the US justice system: that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Too often, Gantt says, people who are accused of crimes spend excessive amounts of time in jail awaiting trial because they can't afford bail. As a result, they may lose their jobs, housing, or custody of their children, even though they haven't been convicted of anything.

And often, people are held on bail that's set relatively low. The New York Civil Liberties Union publicized the problem in a March report. Between 2010 and 2014, 6,673 people spent a week or more in Monroe County jail on bail set at $1,000 or less, says the report. More than 1,900 of those people spent more than a week in jail on bail of $250 or less, it says.

"We're asking that people not just languish in jail for months on end," Gantt says.

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