Times Union: The Other Side of Justice: Editorial

June 13, 2016

The state Senate has moved to stiffen penalties for such things as pointing a laser at an aircraft, abusing animals and assisting in a prisoner escape. That’s fine, but lawmakers also need to ensure the criminal justice system treats the poor and the powerless fairly.

Plenty of hard-line, law and order bills make it through the GOP-controlled Senate each year. Though whether making crimes even more criminal – such as increasing fines and prison terms already on the books – actually deters criminals is debatable, it does play well with many voters. Unfortunately, other significant legislation that would truly improve our criminal justice system has yet to make it to the Senate floor for a vote. This includes measures to help people who cannot afford a lawyer, who languish for months in jail because they cannot make bail, and young offenders whose lives could be turned around if police and the courts had more flexibility.

An Assembly bill proposed by Albany’s Patricia Fahy would address the first issue by ensuring all the state’s counties are able to provide adequate legal representation to the indigent. The state in 2014 settled a civil rights lawsuit and agreed to properly fund public defense programs, but only in the five counties that brought the action. Elsewhere, it’s a patchwork. Ms. Fahy’s bill models Albany County’s commitment to indigent defense, with the state phasing in sufficient funding for each county’s program. A Senate version, with a slower phase-in period, got some traction this year after a leading Republican, Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco of Syracuse, added his support. Now, it needs a vote.

Another bill that easily cleared the Democrat-controlled Assembly would affirm the right to a speedy trial by amending the state’s criminal procedure law. It was propelled by the tragic case of Kalief Browder, who spent three years awaiting trial, much of the time in solitary confinement, at New York City’s Rikers Island after his arrest at age 16. Traumatized by the lengthy incarceration, he took his own life after his release. The proposal would limit pre-trial detention, forcing change in a system plagued by chronic court delays. This bill, too, awaits Senate action.

A third significant step would change how New York treats 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes. The so-called “raise-the-age” measure would enable courts to involve an accused youth’s family right away and to provide social and mental health services aimed at addressing the causes of the criminal behavior. Instead of being held in jails with hardened criminals, young defendants would be housed in youth detention facilities with rehabilitation programs. It would provide a potential path away from crime to a productive life. But, again, the Senate has yet to act.

With only a few days left in the session, it is urgent these bills get a full Senate vote. Addressing crime is all well and good, but if our criminal justice system is to truly serve society, it must also be just for all.