Former NY chief judge supports Tish James’ criminal justice reform proposal
Letitia James, a candidate for attorney general in New York, and public advocate in NYC, unveiled a plan to reform the criminal justice system on Wednesday, and former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is already a fan.
Timing her announcement to coincide with the four-year anniversary of the Eric Garner killing, James outlined her plan that will include expanding and codifying the attorney general’s role as special prosecutor, creating a commission to hold prosecutors accountable, more transparency in police departments, discovery reform and an expansion of body cameras.
“The package of criminal justice reforms released today by Tish James focusing on police and prosecutorial accountability is exactly what all candidates for Attorney General should be doing to ensure equal justice in our state,” said Lippman, the former chief judge of the NYS Court of Appeals.
James touted reforms that have been made in the wake of Garner’s death and the death of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Anton Sterling, such as the end of stop-and-frisk, and the appointment of the special prosecutor for police-involved killings, but said that the state has to do more.
“Throughout my career, I have fought for measures to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” said James in a statement. “I believe that the vast majority of police officers and prosecutors are dedicated public servants who uphold the law every day. But when there is no accountability or transparency, incidents of misconduct are magnified and it becomes impossible for people to trust that the process is fair and the right result is being reached.
“When systemic flaws continue to lead to unjust outcomes even in incidents where there was no wrongdoing, it means we must change the system.”
Expanding and codifying the role of the attorney general as special prosecutor seems to be the main piece of her proposal. In July 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that appointed the attorney general as an independent prosecutor in police-involved killings, but no laws were passed codifying the process and as a result then-District Attorney Ken Thompson came out against the idea at the time.
“It is going to be a challenge for the attorney general to hover over 62 counties,” Thompson said at the time. “If somebody is killed in Buffalo, they’ll swoop down to Buffalo and then, God forbid, somebody is killed in the Bronx a week later, they can’t just grab their stuff and say, ‘Bye Buffalo, I gotta be back in the Bronx.’”
James is pushing for legislation to broaden the scope of the attorney general’s powers as special prosecutor to include cases where people are injured in interactions with cops, in situations where police allegedly commit hate crimes or sexual assault, and include any cases were individuals obstructs an investigation into misconduct.
James also called upon the governor to sign a bill passed by the state Assembly and Senate that would create a prosecutorial misconduct commission.
It’s not a surprise to hear Lippman standing behind James’ proposals as he was known as a champion of equal justice as the chief judge. He made it a NYS requirement for attorneys to do pro bono work before being admitted to the bar. He also made improvements to the indigent criminal defense system and led efforts to curb prosecuting kids, and bail and pretrial justice systems.
Lippman also serves as the chair of the Independent Commision on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a commission that has recommended closing Rikers Island.
“While we have already achieved significant victories, there is an immense amount left to do: too many in our city, state, and nation still feel the scales of justice are tilted away from fairness,” James wrote on Twitter. “Reforming the criminal justice system will be one of my top priorities.”
The Democratic primary for the attorney general race will take place on Sept. 13. James is running against Democrats Leecia Eve, Sean Patrick Maloney and Zephyr Teachout.
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