Opinions & observations: In Joe Lentol, New York had a champion of criminal justice reform

September 21, 2020 Eric Radezky
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Imagine having the top legislator in New York State in the realm of criminal justice reform right here in Greenpoint.

You do not have to imagine, because for a long time that was true in the person of Assemblymember Joe Lentol.

Since becoming the Chair of the State Assembly’s Codes Committee, the committee that deals with all aspects of criminal justice laws in New York State, Lentol has overseen an amazing number of reforms, including mandating the videotaping of police interrogations, repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws, raising the age of criminal prosecution, ensuring the sealing of criminal records, passing the police STAT Act, and overseeing bail reform, discovery reform, and speedy trial reform.

With a track record like that, you can easily make the argument that Lentol, despite his age, was actually at the top of his legislative game at the time of the June primary. Given where we are as a society at this moment in late 2020, how is it that the Democratic voters of the 50th Assembly District voted out someone with so many accomplishments in criminal justice reform?

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Full disclosure: I have worked for Assemblyman Lentol since 2006, and I make no pretense of impartiality when reflecting on his recent primary loss to Emily Gallagher. But I also hold a doctorate in political science, and in that capacity I am struck by the irony that perhaps the most important issue for the young voters who made the difference in June’s primary is a desire for criminal justice reform, the very policy area where Lentol built his career and excels.

Let me illustrate my point by recounting some of those victories.

True reform often takes years. Just look at the videotaping of police interrogations. Lentol spent over a decade pursuing this reform after meeting with exonerated prisoners who had been wrongfully convicted.

Videotaped interrogations would have saved these men, and though the damage had been done, Lentol at least wanted to prevent it from happening again in the future. Thus, Lentol first secured funding for a videotaping pilot project in 2006. In 2010, a larger pilot project across several New York state counties was funded, and videotaping finally became statewide policy in 2018.

And if you think that is a long time to work for reform, consider the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2009. Passed in the 1970s as a measure to fight street crime, the Rockefeller Drug Laws targeted minority populations for over 30 years in New York State, sending youths to prison with long mandatory sentences for even minor possession charges. It took Lentol years to pass that reform, but he got it done.

Lentol was the leader on Raise the Age, a reform that ended the practice of trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in criminal cases.

Sending someone that age to a maximum-security state prison pretty much guarantees they will be hardened, abused and ultimately condemned to a lifetime in and out of the criminal justice system, and Lentol recognized that.

This enormous policy change finally passed in 2017 after long battles with the governor and the Republican-controlled State Senate. Relatedly, Lentol also passed the sealing of criminal records so that a great many people who had committed a single offense and paid their debts to society would not be penalized for the rest of their lives by being blocked from job opportunities or the chance to go to college.

Then there was Lentol’s leadership on bail reform, discovery reform and speedy trial reform in 2019, all policies that he worked to pass for many years, chipping away a little at a time until passage was finally possible.

The same was true this June when Lentol helped pass the STAT Act, a bill that he had sponsored for the past five years but was not able to pass until public support for it became overwhelming.

And although many might have forgotten by now, New York used to be a death penalty state. That’s right. There was a time not long ago that our beloved progressive State of New York still had the death penalty.

Lentol was instrumental in abolishing it, not just once (voting to end the death penalty) but twice (using his chairpersonship to block an attempt to reinstitute it).

It is easy for those of us under 40 (yep, that still includes me) to forget how far New York has come because we live in a state where these battles have already been fought and won, but none of these reforms would have happened without Lentol’s leadership as chair of the Assembly Codes Committee.

Today, criminal justice reform is a larger issue than it was just six months ago. In June and July, McCarren Park was filled every night with over 1,000 demonstrators calling for change. And that is where the irony comes in.

Had he been re-elected, Lentol would have been uniquely positioned in the Assembly to actually affect change. His track record proves that, and the fact of the matter is that bills do not move in Albany without the support of the relevant committee chair.

But out of office, the chairpersonship of the Codes Committee will pass to another assemblymember somewhere else in the state. Young, progressive voters do not seem to realize this, and as a result they have actually lost a key ally in the fight for criminal justice reform that was right here in their own backyard.

Again, I make no pretense at impartiality over the recent primary election. But objectively speaking, there is no question that Lentol was a champion of criminal justice reform in New York State, and no one would have been better positioned to continue the fight in 2021. Imagine having the top legislator in the state in the realm of criminal justice reform right here in Greenpoint. Imagine that.

Eric Radezky holds a Ph.D. in political science from Rutgers University and resides in Greenpoint.

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