NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson Presents His Plans for Criminal Justice Reform at John Jay

NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson Presents His Plans for Criminal Justice Reform at John Jay

NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson Presents His Plans for Criminal Justice Reform at John Jay

On May 16, John Jay College hosted New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson as he unveiled his new “Criminal Justice in the 21st Century” vision, designed to improve public safety and prevent unnecessary criminalization. Before introducing Johnson, President of John Jay College, Karol V. Mason, explained why the College was the perfect place for this announcement. “Every day at John Jay, we work to fulfill our mission of preparing intellectually motivated students to explore justice in its many dimensions,” said Mason. “Our commitment to justice and our reputation makes John Jay a natural place for public policy and thought leaders, like New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to discuss innovations and ideas in the justice field.”

President Mason and Corey Johnson
President Karol V. Mason and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson

Mason noted Johnson’s role as a vocal advocate for a number of justice issues including closing Rikers Island, reforming the bail process, increasing transparency at the Department of Corrections, and advancing legislation to strengthen services and protections for victims of crime. “Speaker Johnson has stated that elected officials should always be fighting to do the best for the people who need it the most,” said Mason. “Today, we will hear about his new criminal justice reform policy blueprint, to further reduce the reliance on incarceration, increase the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, and continue to address the racial disparities in our criminal justice involvement.”

(left to right) Councilmembers Vanessa L. Gibson, Robert Holden, Keith Powers, and Donovan J. Richards; (Bottom row, left to right) Councilmember Margaret S. Chin, Speaker Corey Johnson, Councilmembers Karen Koslowitz and Inez Baron
(left to right) Councilmembers Vanessa L. Gibson, Robert Holden, Keith Powers, and Donovan J. Richards; (Bottom row, left to right) Councilmember Margaret S. Chin, Speaker Corey Johnson, Councilmembers Karen Koslowitz and Inez Baron

Johnson began his speech by thanking President Mason as well as his colleagues from the City Council who came to support his message. Councilmembers included: Vanessa L. Gibson, Robert Holden, Keith Powers, Donovan J. Richards, Margaret S. Chin, Karen Koslowitz, Inez Barron, Helen Rosenthal, Mark Levine, and Rory Lancman. He also thanked Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez for their attendance. And he was grateful for the presence of New York State Attorney General Letitia James and former Chief Judge of New York State Jonathan Lippman. He noted that these were the people that he learns from and counts on daily to help him create positive change for the future.

Acknowledging a History of Trauma
But in order to move on to a better future, Johnson recognized that the past and its errors, need to be acknowledged—this includes stop-and-frisk, broken windows, and mass incarceration policies. “The truth is that because of the color of my skin, I can’t truly know the trauma experienced by the people who have endured the consequences of these policies. But as speaker of the New York City Council, it is my job to listen and understand how policies affect communities.” Providing a very tangible example of how these policies impact communities, Johnson played a video featuring Councilmember Donovan Richards, who is African-American. In the video, Richards recounted his own experience with stop and frisk. “I’ve been stopped and frisked numerous times in my life, too many times to count. I was 14 years old when I was first stopped and frisked,” said Richards, who then described how detectives asked him and his friend to put their hands up. “They asked us if we had any weapons in our pockets. As I reached down into my pocket, they drew their guns rapidly. That experience has never left me.” It’s stories like Richards’ experience that have enabled Johnson to learn how policies affect those in communities of color.

“As speaker of the New York City Council, it is my duty to acknowledge that these policies were wrong,” said Johnson. And, while the stop-and-frisk practice was ended less than ten years ago—and the numbers of criminal summonses and jail population are down—its impact on communities of color remain. “Our jail population in New York City right now is 87 percent black and Latinx; 81 percent of people prosecuted for crimes in New York City are black and Latinx; 88 percent of people stopped and frisked are black and Latinx. This is the true legacy of stop-and-frisk, broken windows, and mass incarceration. Our system has clearly had a profound and long-lasting impact on communities of color,” said Johnson. “The policies of stop-and-frisk, broken windows, and mass incarceration have turned our criminal justice system into a system of injustice for poor people of color.”

Corey Johnson

“The policies of stop-and-frisk, broken windows, and mass incarceration have turned our criminal justice system into a system of injustice for poor people of color.”  —Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council 

Rebuilding Trust and Investing in Fairness
Seeking a holistic approach to creating safer, more trusting communities, Johnson called for the closing of Rikers Island and the repealing of section 50-A of the New York State Civil Rights Law—the state law that keeps the disciplinary records of officers out of public view. “Trust will only come from a robust discipline system that is transparent to the public,” said Johnson. He also announced that he’s pushing for a system where treatment and rehabilitation are the default response for low-level offenses, not incarceration. To move towards increased decarceration, investments in alternatives to prison will need to be made, according to Johnson. “More importantly, we need to take the money we spend on jails and invest those funds into communities directly impacted by mass incarceration. We need to address the fundamental problems that led to justice system involvement in these communities in the first place,” said Johnson. “We need substance abuse treatment programs. We need more supportive housing. We need better access to health care. We need more job programs. This is how you fix a system that has been broken for far too long. This is how you invest in fairness.”

“We need to take the money we used to spend on jails and invest those funds into communities directly impacted by mass incarceration.” —Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council

Johnson also said that one of the ways to further invest in fairness is to stop sending people on parole back to jail for minor technical violations such as missing an appointment with a parole officer or missing a curfew. While the state considers the Less-is-More Act to help fix the problem, the New York City Council will also take action. The rethinking of New York City’s parole system will introduce programs that will help criminal justice involved individuals get back on track. The programs will identify those that have been arrested for minor technical parole violations and place them in treatment programs and community-based programs that provide them with the coursework and services they need to ready themselves for reentry.

Audience listening to Corey Johnson
(left to right) The Honorable Letitia James, New York State Attorney General; the Honorable Eric Gonzalez, District Attorney for Kings County, Brooklyn; the Honorable Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge of New York State and Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals; Karol V. Mason, President of John Jay College

Continuing with the topic of fairness, Johnson spoke of economic equity. “Fairness also means economic equity,” said Johnson, who called on the state to end mandatory court surcharges. “The poor are already burdened enough by our criminal justice system. Forcing them into a system that has discriminated against them for decades, and then charging them for it, is a deeper and further injustice.” The Day-Fine project, a successful pilot program out of Staten Island, could be a possible solution, according to Johnson. “The Day-Fine concept is simple. Fines are based on a percentage of a person’s daily income. It will not over punish the poor and will not under punish the rich.”

Corey Johnson
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson presents his Criminal Justice Reform vision

“The poor are already burdened enough by our criminal justice system. Forcing them into a system that has discriminated against them for decades and then charging them for it, is a deeper and further injustice.”—Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council

Providing Support and Services
Turning his attention to mental health, Johnson pointed out how individuals who are black, Latinx, and poor, aren’t the only ones filling the jail system, so too are the mentally ill. “One in five people in our City’s jails have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness,” said Johnson. While he admitted there’s no easy solution for this particular challenge, Johnson believes there are small steps that can be made to make a real difference. More specifically, addressing key drivers like improving housing. “We need transitional housing for those who just need a temporary home, and supportive housing for people who need more supervision.” To help with that, Johnson announced the creation of a program that will house one hundred criminal justice involved men who are suffering from a serious mental illness. “Let’s take some of the money we spend locking up people with serious mental illness and let’s invest that money in inpatient programs, so they can get better and learn to transition back into society.”

“All of us together can create a justice system that is worthy of the greatest city in the world.” —Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council

Changing the System
Not one to shy away from his own past mistakes, Johnson told the audience of his own struggles with addiction and how he, as a white man, was never targeted or arrested for the same crimes black and Latinx New Yorkers are arrested for every day. “I was allowed to grow into the man that I am today and I feel very lucky to be standing here after all the mistakes that I’ve made. But my story is not about luck, it’s about privilege,” said Johnson. “Many black and Latinx New Yorkers don’t have that privilege, and I want a criminal justice system governed by compassion and common sense.” He continued, calling for all those in attendance to step up and work toward creating a more just system. “We can change the system. All of us together can create a justice system that is worthy of the greatest city in the world.”

To support informed participation in our democracy, the College provides access to public officials in their official capacity and candidates without regard to political party affiliation or policy views. Views expressed are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the College. See http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/legal_counsel/pol_activities_memo.pdf