Black Histories, Black Futures

21 February 2020

This article was originally published February 14, in Osborne's E-News, a digital publication distributed 1-2 times monthly. If you would like to receive the E-News, please sign up here.  

As we mark Black History Month, we honor the indelible contributions of generations of Black people who were forced to come to this land, and who have contributed so much despite deeply ingrained systemic inequity and subjugation. From this place of gratitude and acknowledgment of our past, we know that we must dismantle those very structures of oppression. We do this for justice and to honor those on whose shoulders we stand.

Those of us who work within the criminal legal system are also challenged to combat the sabotage and misleading rhetoric from those who would undo the hard-fought bail and discovery reforms that took effect on January 1.

It is not unfamiliar to have to fight to protect what's already been won. It requires us to recall that other big reforms – repealing the worst of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and Raising the Age (to name just two) were also fought bitterly by many of the same forces – privately held companies (including bail bondsmen) who might lose profits, Sheriffs who might lose lucrative jail stays, DAs who see their virtually unbridled power checked.

Like those reforms, our bail system has disproportionately disadvantaged people of color. Yet the proposed “compromises” to amend the law by allowing preventive detention will prove more racist than the cash bail system we set out to reform. In a letter to Governor Cuomo and political leaders, we joined 188 groups to say that adding “dangerousness” to the bail law would codify racial profiling into pretrial detention decisions:

“It is an invitation for bias… People of color would overwhelmingly bear the brunt of this misguided approach. According to a 2016 study, Black people were twice as likely as white people to be misclassified as ‘high risk’. White people, meanwhile, were mis-classified as low risk 63.2 percent more often than Black people.”

Yes, New York must do more to help counties shift their resources from jails to communities, to connect arrested people to needed services and treatment. We must continue to demonstrate that releasing a person to services and/or supervision is more effective than bail in assuring appearance in court and leads to much better outcomes than for those detained pretrial, who are less likely to prevail and more likely to lose homes, jobs, health, mental health, and families.

Despite recent "sky-is-falling" proclamations from those who have long opposed these reforms, there is no actual evidence that the new laws are responsible for a spike in crime. At Osborne, we're working to tell a different story. One that is grounded in what we see every day in the courts and in what we know from our 90 years working inside prisons, jails, and in the community.

I'm sharing a recent piece that I wrote with Assemblymember Michael Blake that rejects the reactionary narrative and discusses the importance of letting these reforms work and supporting the community-based services that are designed to ensure people appear in court. And even as I write this, I am in Albany to testify about changes to our parole system and the importance of supporting children of incarcerated parents and family connections for all people in jail and prison; we have included our full city and state policy agenda in this newsletter as well.

The fight over bail reform should remind us that hard-fought victories aren’t “won and done.” If we are to honor Black History, we need to shift our focus to Black Futures —and end the racist and disparate practices of our criminal legal system.

Thank you for believing in the promise of an equitable criminal justice system.  

Elizabeth Gaynes
President & CEO, The Osborne Association