(Photo courtesy of Assemblywoman Latrice Walker's office)

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker is literally putting her life on the line for the second year in a row as she continues her hunger strike as a protest of what she says is Governor Kathy Hochul’s attempts to overturn—or at least incrementally chip away at—gains made in the Bail Reform effort.

The New York State budget is officially three weeks late as of press time, and another extension was filed to ensure that essential state bills and state employee salaries are paid (not the electeds, though), but crucial bills in need of discussion and passage are also awaiting.

Brownsville-born and -raised Walker has represented New York’s 55th Assembly District since 2015.

“I began a hunger strike on April 9. The first three days were pretty difficult; I had headaches. But now things have gotten a lot easier,” said Walker. Her faith is giving her strength and encouragement, she said, “in this opportunity to fast for justice.”

Although Walker held a hunger strike this time last year, she said, “A lot of people may ask why am I doing something so drastic, but I have no problem this year, nor last year when it lasted 19 days, putting my body and my well-being on the line for something that I believe in. For something that is just—in support of no rollbacks to bail reform, which are clearly working.”

Walker said she recently visited Riker’s Island. “We saw a report that came out [April 14], which indicates that due to problems at the Department of Corrections for New York City, 19 people died pre-trial last year, and over 36 people have died pre-trial over the last two years. And I’m watching now as we have a budget (that) is being held up because the number-one priority is to incarcerate Black and brown people without ever having been convicted of a crime.”

During her January 10, 2023, State of the State address, Hochul said, “Bail reform is not the primary driver of a national crime wave created by a convergence of factors, including the pandemic…The bail reform law as written now leaves room for improvement…Of course, we know changing our bail laws will not automatically bring down crime rates.”

The Center for Community Alternatives noted that Hochul’s plan “would remove the standard by which judges are required to evaluate whether to set bail, remand, or other conditions in bail-eligible cases. Specifically, it would remove this language: ‘The court in all cases, unless otherwise provided by law, must impose the least restrictive kind and degree of control or restriction that is necessary to secure the principal’s return to court when required.’”

“One says, how does this hell on Earth exist today?” asked Hochul about Rikers Island in 2021. Comparing the situation to Attica 50 years ago, she said, “It’s also about protecting human dignity, and this questions who we are as a people when we can allow situations, as we’ve seen in Rikers, exist in a prosperous, mighty city like New York. The fact that this exists is an indictment on everyone. And I’m going to do what I can…because no one, no [incarcerated person], no corrections officer, no family members who visit should have to witness the reality of Rikers as it exists today…We have a combustible situation at Rikers because of overcrowding…a volatile tinder box.”

But now, Walker said, Hochul was trying to “incarcerate her way out of a political problem. We have seen the numbers across the state within the most recent elections and from the day that we passed bail reform, there has been an organized attack to undo it. We know that bail was based on poverty, and not any sound legal argument. Most people are unable to post bail, and it’s a woman’s issue: Many women come into the office because someone has been locked up and they’re trying to make a way for this person to be returned back to their home, back to work. back to their families, and back to the community.”

Walker said data shows that the safest communities “have the most resources and not the most police officers.”

“I represent a community that is 90 percent Black and brown, and I’m here to tell you that it is fake news when you try to argue that bail reform is responsible for a spike in crime,” said Assemblymember Monique Chandler-Waterman, who represents Assembly District 58. “Removing the least-restrictive standard will open the door to more of the same—more Black and brown people being caged. We need support and funding. Let’s focus on that. The safest communities have the most resources. Let’s focus on that.”

Rallying for support

At a recent rally in Manhattan’s Foley Square, people “who have survived Rikers Island, and people who lost loved ones at Rikers” gathered to push the legislature to protect an un-watered-down bail reform bill, saying it is working to address the issues it was originally set up to do.

The key, Walker told the Aficionperu, is “addressing the underlying factors (that lead) to poverty, such as homelessness or access to as a quality education, or access to suitable housing—that is the number-one crime prevention that we need in our society. People are broke, people are poor, people are struggling. And they’re struggling their way through a system in a society (that) has forgotten them and has left them to languish in a cycle that we just are trying to fight our way out of.”

Walker said the 13th Amendment of the Constitution indicates that slavery was abolished except in the case of criminal punishment, “and so this means that when someone is subjected to the criminal justice system, they are subjected back to slavery as we know it. What happens then is you’re not even counted as an individual, you’re not entitled to the protections of the Constitution including the Eighth Amendment, which says that bail should not be excessive, or cruel and unusual punishment, and that everyone is entitled to due process, which is why, when we did bail reform, we did discovery reform, as well as speedy trial.

“We are watching both bail and discovery come under attack in this situation. Prosecutors utilize bail and pretrial detention as a means to coerce plea bargains and get pleas based on a conviction or get convictions based on an underlying charge that was never even done…in Kings County alone, there have been over 225 wrongful convictions overturned. These are some of the things that we are fighting against in this movement.”

According to published reports, the bail law has spared more than 24,000 people from being jailed on bail for misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges. Activists have said that equals thousands of New Yorkers who “were able to fight their cases from a position of freedom, (and) able to keep their jobs, housing, and access to life-affirming services, such as medical and mental health care.”

Bail reformers also contend that “re-arrest rates have declined and court appearance rates have increased. It costs New York taxpayers close to half a million dollars to keep one person in jail for a year.”

“The budget is about the fiscal responsibility of our state to the people that we collectively represent. To utilize the budget for legislative items that we can deal with during the legislative session, I think is unheard of,” Walker said on InceptionFM.com’s Back to Basics. “We’re ready to get back to business. We’re ready for people to continue working, and we’re ready for government to continue working for us. We do not have to hold up a budget based on the poor, because the other conversation that we’re talking about, as well as access to affordable housing, which is a human right.”

On April 12, the “Third Report and Recommendations on 2022 Deaths in New York City Department of Correction Custody” was released, written by Deputy General Counsel Melissa Cintrón Hernández, and others. The report identified the following trends among all nineteen deaths that occurred in DOC custody in 2022:

Correction officers did not tour or supervise people in custody in accordance with Department policy in 13 of the deaths.

A “B” post officer was not assigned to a housing unit in four cases.

Correction officers failed to render immediate first aid to unresponsive individuals in five instances.

There were inaccurate or incomplete logbook entries in six cases.

Six of the 19 people who died had spent more than a year in custody.

There was incident after incident of systematic, regular abuse and brutality, and failure of staff to assess and monitor at risk individuals.

Six of the people killed in NYC jails last year had been locked in jail for over a year before they died.

Many of those who died had significant mental health needs that were not adequately treated while incarcerated. Michael Nieves was one such individual: He bled out from his neck for 9 minutes without anyone giving him assistance. Erick Tavira died by suicide even after he had requested mental health care in Rikers.

“It’s unbelievable that Governor Hochul is holding the whole budget hostage just to lock up more Black and brown people in these deathtrap jails,” said Lezandre Khadu, advocate and member of Freedom Agenda. “My son died in jail of meningitis at age 24. They could have saved him. They didn’t care because they don’t care about Black and brown people.”

According to Walker, “We’ve seen that bail reform is clearly working. People are returning to court 99.999% of the time, and most people who are charged with crimes that fall under bail reform are not rearrested for a violent crime. And these are just the facts. This is not the first time that we’ve been here. Pretty much every year since we’ve passed bail reform, we are watching the attack take place. Even as early as December of last year, when we were having a conversation with respect to legislative pay, the governor made an attempt to link the legislative pay raise to bail reform, which again says that we are putting politics over people.”

Walker said one of the key areas of dispute is Hochul’s effort to “remove return to court as a standard for bail in the State of New York, something that has existed since the existence of bail in New York. The other thing is removal of the ‘least restrictive measures’ as a standard. Basically, it states that we don’t have to go straight to remand, that judges have more tools in their toolbox to use to connect people back to society in a meaningful way, as opposed to just putting them in jail pre-trial where they don’t have access to evidence against them, and they don’t have access to just be human beings who live in a humane situation. Instead, they want us to go into a death trap.”

D’Juan Collins, VOCAL Leader and founder of the Isaiah Foundation for Family Reunification and creator of a mentoring program, “Fresh Minds, Fresh Livez,” said: “Because of my lawsuit, I was able to pay my bail and that’s the only reason I’m out here today. I was able to re-engage with my son. I was able to get housing. I was able to start a nonprofit to give back to communities, all while fighting my case.”

Since 2020, bail reform proponents have said that both New York State jail populations and deaths in jails have seen a disturbing rise.

Hochul has tried to maintain that her proposals will give more discretion and clarity to judges. Opponents to her plan say that the opposite is true. An Office of Court Administration representative apparently testified that judges need no additional clarity.

Meanwhile, more than 100 law professors, teaching at every law school in New York State, penned a letter strongly opposing Hochul’s bail plan. A broad coalition of advocates and state legislators is calling for deep investments in resources that will improve community safety and not make changes that would upend the bail laws.

Unions UAW Region 9A and DC37 have called on lawmakers to reject the governor’s bail plan, and several coalitions and organizations are united in their call—amid their fights about public safety, housing, education, and climate—for policymakers and electeds to reject any budget with changes to the bail laws, and instead focus on the “humanitarian crisis in the jails.”

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A visit to Riker’s Island, Walker said, would reveal the real conditions in which “we’re placing individuals under who have not been convicted of any crime, most of whom have mental health and drug abuse issues. We are not addressing the underlying situations of substance abuse in the City of New York, and we definitely are not addressing, in any meaningful way, homelessness in our society. Instead, this has been about political expediency. Everyone is saying, ‘Oh, well, bail is a problem in my district.’

“We have done a number of polls that indicate that people want us to do something about bail and the answer has been left up to political pundits to be able to address, as opposed to listening to defense counsel all across the State of New York who have indicated that this is one of the most progressive criminal justice reforms that our state has seen in over 50 years.”

Walker’s hunger strike, with her twice-daily bone broth and water diet, is just her effort, she said, to show how “we’re all just standing up against the powers that be who are saying otherwise to keep your hands off of bail reform and fund the underlying circumstances, including pretrial services, as well as fund the apparatus to complete a proper discovery within the State of New York, including, but not limited to, having a universal system where people can have access and upload evidence that may be used against you so a person does not have to languish on Riker’s Island for one year, as we’ve seen.”

Walker said that in many of the incidents when people have died recently, they had been incarcerated for over a year before their deaths. “As we’ve seen with the Kalief Browder situation, where he was incarcerated pretrial for over three years, cases are just taking too long.”

Both this and the issue of discovery are “are under assault, but they are intertwined and they are so interconnected with one another that that becomes the basis of the attack on human beings, as well as your constitutional rights,” Walker concluded.

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