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OpinionCommentary

LI state senators must stand up for reform

Bills to fix unjust laws about bail and criminal evidence need their support.

From left, Anna Kaplan, Kevin Thomas and Monica

From left, Anna Kaplan, Kevin Thomas and Monica Martinez, three of the six Democratic New York State senators who represent Long Island. Photo Credit: James Escher

In New York and nationally, black and brown people are more likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to lengthy jail time when compared to white Americans. We bear a disproportionate burden for an unjust system. That’s why we’re organizing our community and making our voices heard.

I grew up in Riverhead, where community organizing wasn’t a political act; it was a part of daily life. We worked hard to make voices heard, ensure streets were plowed, school budgets were passed and folks had representation on the town council.

I took those lessons and used them to help black people throughout the country organize around important issues — including criminal justice reform in New York. Now, as the president of Color Of Change, I see our members sharing stories, calling on their representatives to enact change, and working to improve their communities.

Today, Color Of Change members and other Long Islanders organize around the urgent need for criminal justice reform, and specifically around eliminating cash bail and reforming the discovery process. This is about adding a small measure of justice back into our criminal justice system. Whether it’s ensuring a fair trial or making sure people aren’t locked up for months — risking the loss of employment or the custody of their children without being convicted of a crime — legislators owe it to New Yorkers to vote for change.

For many New Yorkers experiencing the criminal justice system, money bail incarcerates individuals just because they don’t have cash on hand. We need State Sens. Monica Martinez, Kevin Thomas and Anna Kaplan — the only Long Island Democratic senators withholding support — to help pass the Bail Elimination Act right now.

We need a system to replace cash bail that honors the presumption of innocence and aims to release most people on their own recognizance, rather than a system that detains people solely on their ability to front the cash for bail. We are so close to being able to pass this important legislation, if only our Long Island senators get on board.

Also, our state’s outdated discovery process makes a fair trial impossible. The right to defense is enshrined in Bill of Rights, yet there have been cases in which prosecutors have failed to give defense attorneys a fair shot at properly defending those accused of a crime. We need to get rid of the “blindfold law” by passing the Discovery for Justice Reform Act, which would allow defendants to have relevant information about their cases before accepting or declining a plea deal.

When I was in high school in Riverhead, I organized classmates to protest the unjust exclusion of students from local stores. Our efforts succeeded because so many spoke out against injustice in a unified voice.

Today, I’m honored to stand with New Yorkers using their voices to organize around cash bail and discovery reforms because they know the heavy toll these policies take on their communities. Without reform, New Yorkers across the state could feel the burden of these unjust practices for generations.

I’m proud Color of Change and Long Islanders continue to organize and speak out. There’s an opportunity to pass critical legislation, and we cannot afford to come up empty-handed.

Rashad Robinson is the president of Color Of Change, a national online racial justice organization.

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