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Local senator talks criminal  justice reform in New York

Local senator talks criminal justice reform in New York

Photo courtesy of Jordan Laird

Recently-elected New York state Sen. Kevin Thomas, from the sixth district, hosted a discussion on criminal justice reform in New York state with New Yorkers United for Justice on Friday, March 1, in the Sondra and David S. Mack Student Center multipurpose room.

The panel was hosted by Van Jones, CNN host and CEO of REFORM Alliance, an organization aiming to reduce the number of people unjustly under control of the criminal justice system. Other panelists included Topeka K. Sam, senior advisor at New Yorkers United for Justice, and Lauren Krisai, senior policy analyst at Justice Action Network.

The discussion addressed what the panelists deemed to be a pivotal year for criminal justice reform in the country and especially throughout the state. 

“Last year, we did get it done at the federal level. That makes this year the pivotal year because the federal system is only going to impact about 10 percent of the people who are locked up, 90 percent is states,” Jones said. 

Sam, a formerly-incarcerated New Yorker, asked the audience how many people in the room had been impacted by incarceration. A little less than half of the room raised their hands. Sam and fellow panelists went on to make the case that everyone in the room is impacted by incarceration. 

She pointed to a recent study that found that nearly half of all American adults have a family member who has been incarcerated. Other panelists pointed out that everyone is impacted, if for no other reason than that their tax dollars pay for the system.The panel touched on a number of policies, including probation and parole reform, discovery reform and drug law reform, all with the intention of ultimately reducing crime, social injustice, recidivism – the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend – and cost.

“This is the biggest, most important state this year: New York,” Jones said. “For New York, Long Island is a key conversational center.”

At the beginning of the event, New Yorkers United for Justice played a short advertisement advocating for open discovery in New York. 

The video featured Michael Morton, a Texas man, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife in 1987. On screen, Morton explained that he was wrongfully convicted because prosecutors withheld evidence before the trial. 

He went to prison for 25 years before he was exonerated by DNA evidence; during his incarceration, his wife’s killer murdered another victim. 

As a result of Morton’s case, Texas changed the laws surrounding discovery, the formal process by which the prosecution discloses information and evidence prior to a trial.

“It’s time for New York to do the same thing,” Morton said in the video.

Jones and other panelists referred to the fact that many other states, especially conservative states, have already made reforms. 

“You cannot get further right-wing than some of these Republican governors who are passing this stuff with huge majorities, getting big popularity out of it, saving money and making communities better and we got our knees shaking in New York state,” Jones said. “Just be as liberal as Texas, just be as liberal as Mississippi and we’ll be alright New York.”

Krisai explained that this is a rare issue where the left and the right mostly agree. “I think that people on both sides of the aisle do agree on criminal justice reform,” Krisai said. “They just come to it in different ways.”

Students studying criminology at Hofstra enjoyed having the opportunity to listen to people with experience discuss criminal justice reform. 

“I always think that discussions like this are really important because, even though I am only a freshman and there’s only so much I can do right now, I know the best way to get involved is to stay educated on issues like this,” said Sofie Ramirez, a freshman criminology major. “When my time comes, I’ll know what to do and know how to stand up.”

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