Opinion: Make the justice system work for all

By Harvey Epstein

For too long, the scales of justice in New York have been weighted in favor of the rich and powerful and the promise of equal justice has gone unfulfilled. Our courts and our laws consistently disadvantage low-income people, people of color, immigrants (especially those with limited English proficiency), the elderly and the disabled.

New York’s civil justice system handles the cases that affect our fundamental human needs – our homes, our family life, our economic concerns. Yet the system is pay-to-play. If you have the means and can afford a lawyer, you can get a fair shake in court. If you can’t afford a lawyer and can’t get legal help from New York’s underfunded legal services programs, you are left on your own to face dire consequences in courts that are impossible to navigate on your own. A recent state commission report found that each year, 1.8 million low-income New Yorkers are forced to appear in court without counsel in cases that involve life’s essential aspects.

Our criminal justice system is just as sorely in need of reform. Black and Latino New Yorkers are incarcerated at a far higher rate than whites, despite being statistically no more likely to engage in illegal behavior. Our bail bond system keeps low-income people in jail awaiting trial for minor offenses and has a disproportionate impact on people of color.

Yet there are concrete steps we can take to level the playing field for these communities and begin to turn the tide on our system’s alarming trends.

First, we need to establish a civil right to counsel for all civil legal cases where fundamental needs are at stake. In 2017, New York City passed groundbreaking legislation that creates a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. Low-income New Yorkers throughout the state should also have a right to counsel in all civil cases that affect their fundamental human needs.

Expanding funding for civil legal services programs is also critical. A full-fledged civil right to counsel will take time to implement. In the interim, the state should greatly expand civil legal services funding to ensure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers have access to legal support.

Next, we need to reform the bail and bail bond systems. No one should be held in jail before trial for a minor offense simply because he or she is unable to afford bail. Bail requirements that deny low-income defendants due process simply because of their poverty must be eliminated. More importantly, however, we must rid our system of racism and bias. Mass incarceration and so many of the laws, policies and practices of the criminal justice system disproportionately impact the rights and lives of low-income people of color. A commission needs to be established to develop a comprehensive plan to eliminate racism and bias from the system.

For decades, I’ve worked as a public interest attorney and I’ve seen first-hand how our system has failed so many underserved and marginalized communities. But we can have a justice system that works for all New Yorkers and not just the privileged, if we fight for common-sense reforms that better reflect our values and ensure true justice.

Harvey Epstein is a Democrat running for State Assembly, 74th District. He is also a public interest attorney and community leader with a passion for social and economic justice.

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