DSA challengers push state legislature on criminal justice reform

January 22, 2020 By Emma Whitford and David Brand
DSA sex workers campaign
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As Democratic leaders in Albany discuss rolling back new pre-trial criminal justice reforms, including a major cash bail law, a slate of Democratic Socialist primary challengers in Brooklyn and Queens are staking out the opposite position, demanding that the state enact even deeper reform measures.

The five DSA-backed candidates for Senate and Assembly have released a platform intended to push statewide criminal justice reform measures ahead of the June primary elections. Several of the bills, like restricting the use of solitary confinement and legalizing marijuana, are also supported by incumbents in these races, while decriminalizing the adult sex trade creates a distinction between the challengers and most current office-holders. 

The so-called “Agenda for Decarceration,” shared with the Eagle, also includes legislation to eliminate cash bail entirely, permit safe injection sites, re-enfranchise incarcerated New Yorkers, enact elder parole and repeal a sex work-related misdemeanor, known as the “walking while trans” ban

The Brooklyn candidates backing the agenda are Jabari Brisport, who is running for retiring State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery’s seat in Central Brooklyn’s 25th Senate District; Marcela Mitaynes, who is challenging Assemblymember Felix Ortiz in Sunset Park’s 51st Assembly District; Boris Santos, who is challenging Assemblymember Erik Dilan in the 54th Assembly District in Bushwick; and Phara Souffrant Forrest, who is challenging Assemblymember Walter Mosely in the 57th Assembly District in Crown Heights. 

Zohran Mamdani, the lone Queens candidate to receive the DSA’s endorsement, also supports the package. Mamdani is running against Assemblymember Aravella Simotas in Astoria’s 36th Assembly District.

“We are proud to support all ongoing efforts to roll back carceral violence in New York State,” the candidates said in a joint statement. “We also want to use this opportunity to share a vision for a world where our commitments to restorative justice are even deeper, and our distance from the brutality of the criminal punishment system is even greater.” 

The candidates also pledged to oppose the construction of new borough-based jails in alliance with the No New Jails coalition, and to introduce a batch of new bills, that would bring about changes such as decriminalizing simple drug possession, repealing mandatory minimum sentences, ending police cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and “establishing a sentencing reform commission with a mandate to reduce New York’s incarceration rate to its 1950 level within 10 years.”

Meanwhile, the Jan. 1 enactment of state bail and discovery reforms has prompted a backlash among law enforcement officials, conservative lawmakers and some moderate Democrats who say the measures go too far. Support has also waned among everyday New Yorkers, according to a poll published Tuesday by Siena College. Only 37 percent of respondents said eliminating cash bail on all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies is “good for New York” — down from 55 percent of respondents in April.

Evan Stavisky, a Democratic strategist with the Parkside Group, said that he recognizes in the DSA criminal justice platform a signature strategy. 

“The DSA’s efforts have typically been about promoting both ideas and candidates committed to those ideas,” he said. “So, while it is not yet clear how much support each bill has in each of these districts, presenting a common platform enables them to advance their agenda regardless of the outcome of any individual primary.”   

Several of the DSA candidates are running against other grassroots candidates whose criminal justice platforms overlap with the DSA’s. For example, Sandy Nurse in the 54th AD lists legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing sex work on her website and said she supports all of the bills on the platform. Jason Salmon in SD 25 lists ending solitary confinement and increasing police transparency on his website. (Already this cycle, grassroots challengers from Brooklyn and Queens have appeared together and presented a united front on issues like campaign finance reform and rejecting real estate money.) 

Asked to comment on the DSA platform, incumbents in four Brooklyn and Queens races emphasized areas of agreement. (There is not an incumbent in Brisport’s race, since outgoing Sen. Velmanette Montgomery is retiring and vacating her seat.) For example, all four co-sponsor legislation to restrict solitary confinement. Mosley in the 57th AD and Ortiz in the 51st AD also co-sponsor legislation for safe-injection facilities. All but Dilan in the 54th AD co-sponsor legislation to legalize marijuana. 

“I am in full support of laws we’ll take up this year to fully eliminate cash bail, prohibit police from untruthful statements, legalize marijuana, create safe injection sites, restrict solitary confinement, help our older inmates and help people re-enter the workforce after prison,” said Ortiz in a statement. 

Mosley also listed his criminal justice reform bonafides. 

“I’ve fought for crucial reforms to our criminal justice system, including Raise the Age, ending cash bail and expediting trials,” he said. “This year, I’m fighting to legalize adult-use cannabis and overhaul our parole system to put an end to unnecessary technical violations that result in thousands facing re-incarceration.”

Dilan, of Bushwick, noted his support for the pre-trial reforms that passed this session. “I’m fully committed to continuing to reform our criminal justice system and know that the Assembly will always lead the way on these issues,” he said. 

But one aspect of the DSA criminal justice platform stands out as particularly divisive: Of the incumbents, only Ortiz co-sponsors legislation to decriminalize the adult sex trade (a bill that sponsors stress would not decriminalize human trafficking). 

A spokesperson for Simotas said she supports each of the existing bills included in the DSA platform, except the bill to decriminalize sex work. She joins other Western Queens lawmakers, including State Sen. Michael Gianaris, in supporting the elimination of cash bail.

“While [Arvella] agrees that sex workers do not deserve harassment from police and the risk of incarceration, she wants to ensure that New York does not unintentionally insulate dangerous and violent people who exploit them from accountability under the law,” the spokesperson said. 

Assemblymember Tremaine Wright is running against Brisport for Montgomery’s soon-to-be empty seat, and recently received the outgoing senator’s endorsement. Wright said she supports safe injection sites, legalizing marijuana, and lifting the “walking while trans” ban in a statement to the Eagle

But Wright is also co-sponsoring forthcoming legislation that will continue to criminalize the purchase and promotion of sex, and is working with opponents of sex work decriminalization. She said the state should provide support and services for people “leaving sex work and the sex trade.” 

Spokespersons for the Democratic majority in the State Senate and Assembly did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 


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