The Catholic Bishops have long been at the forefront regarding the rights of the accused and the humane treatment of those imprisoned, from our staunch opposition to the death penalty, to our demand for repeal of the destructive 1970s-era Rockefeller Laws, which tied the hands of judges with mandatory minimum prison sentences for even nonviolent drug offenders, to advocacy for passage of last year’s HALT Solitary Confinement Act.
At the same time, just as the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable embraced and tenderly cared for the victim of a violent crime, we are all called to do the same. And on a broader level, we are called to stand with all people of good will, especially those in our poorest communities, who rightfully desire a life of peace and safety, and a freedom from the lingering daily fear of murder, rape, assault, robbery, and other violent crimes against them and their loved ones. The safety and well-being of law enforcement officers is also a significant concern in a climate of rising violence. New Yorkers see with their own eyes a dangerous lack of regard for the sacredness and dignity of human life that seems to be reaching epidemic proportions in many spheres, including in cases of violent crime.
I recognize lawmakers have a difficult task in balancing the real issues of equity and justice for those who are accused with the real rise in gun violence that is plaguing our cities. The Legislature made bail reform a priority in 2019 to address the disparate treatment of people with and without means and the dangerous overcrowding of jails, where people who have not yet been convicted of crimes waste away or worse for months or longer.
Those same lawmakers recognized flaws in the original law and addressed some of those issues the following year. But, clearly, most New Yorkers, including the people our priests, deacons, religious and laity serve in our parishes, believe more needs to be done. And there is no more important role of state and local government than to ensure the safety and security of our state’s residents and visitors. In addition, any reform proposals must take into account the urgent need to ensure that there are safe and humane conditions at pretrial detention facilities, and that the accused receive their constitutional right to a speedy trial.
Governor Kathy Hochul recently laid out a multi-point criminal justice reform plan to give judges more discretion related to bail for some serious crimes. Beyond that, she also seeks to increase support and services for those suffering from serious mental health issues, to strike a balance in the handling of repeat juvenile offenders facing gun-related charges who may pose a threat to the community, to help those who have offended and completed their sentence to successfully re-enter society, and more. While we Bishops are hardly experts in criminal justice, her plan seems to me to be balanced and well-reasoned and is a positive contribution to the discussions over the final package of legislation.
I recognize some legislators and advocates will have concerns with some of these proposals. Yet, I am encouraged that the Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who both must satisfy the legitimate concerns and commitments of their members and constituents, have pledged to keep an open mind in negotiations. They are not wrong to question the plan, and to seek better ways. Collaboration and consultation always lead to better results.
The governor and the Legislature face a difficult task in ensuring justice and equity for those accused of crimes, while restoring a sense of law and order to the streets of our neighborhoods. I pray that good will from all leads to fruitful results, and I urge all parties to negotiate in good faith, with malice toward none and charity toward all, for the benefit of all New Yorkers.