By Assembly Member Harvey Epstein
New York is often held up as beacon of progressivism, but the truth is that our state has not been a leader on enacting criminal justice and re-entry reforms, fairly funding our schools, increasing voter access and protecting and amplifying the voices of groups that have traditionally been excluded from the political process. This year, with decisive Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, we will have a unique opportunity to go from a laggard to a leader on many important issues by making substantial changes in state law that will have implications for decades to come.
Every issue the state government is dealing with this year is permeated by the issues of race and racism, which are ever present in our society. We need to hear from people with diverse perspectives and experiences. It is critical that people who share a social justice and racial justice lens engage in the legislative process.
Please get involved. Whether you care about single payer healthcare or the renewal and expansion of the rent laws, criminal justice reforms, or fixing the MTA –– pick your issue and dig in. Learn about the bills, think about the policy implications, consider how your community may be impacted and speak up: tell your representatives what you want to see.
The details matter. We are likely to legalize recreational marijuana this year. How we do it will have significant implications for social justice in our state. Will we seal and expunge records of people who have past convictions? Will people who have past convictions be able to set a license to grow or sell marijuana? Should they get greater access to these licenses? Should reinvestment in the communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs benefit most from the tax revenue? How do we prevent another big tobacco and create an industry geared towards small businesses?
We are also discussing bail reform and either reducing or eliminating the use of cash bail. Millions of low-income New Yorkers remain incarcerated because they cannot afford their bail or the cost of paying a bail bonds person. Now, as we discuss reforming the bail system, are we going eliminate bail? Eliminate bail for only certain offenses? Are we going to require that people wear ankle bracelets as a condition of their release? Are we trading one form of incarceration for a new chain? How will people work if they are forced to wear ankle bracelets and what if they can’t afford to pay for those bracelets? What oversight will we have on the bail bonds industry?
You have the answers to these questions, and many more. If we’re going to make our state a fairer place to live for all New Yorkers, we need to talk about these complicated issues. Let’s start the conversation now. I will be holding a town hall from 5:30-8:30 p.m. (program begins at 6 p.m.) on Thursday, January 31 at NYU Dental School in The Nagle Auditorium, Room 701 at 345 East 24th Street. This will be an opportunity to engage with organizers and advocates working on these issues, ask questions and share your opinions. Please come and make your voice heard for the sake of our democracy.