The Schmooze is a weekly download of thoughts, analysis, reporting, and other things the author finds interesting. In other words: Susan conversing, informally.
Amy Jones is a community organizer for Citizen Action New York. She’s passionate, articulate and doesn’t pull punches.
“The last time I went to jail, it was for petit larceny,” she told me. “My baby was 6 weeks old and I was nursing. When I told the judge that, he said, ‘that’s what Child Protective Services is for, they’ll feed your baby.’ ”
Jones was one of four leaders of Albany’s black and brown community to visit the Spectrum News studios on Monday. The meeting was part of a continuing effort to ensure that what the public sees on television is an accurate representation of the community.
Like Jones, the other three community leaders had also been previously incarcerated: a documentary film maker; the head of FLIP: Families Living in Poverty; and the president and CEO of Youth L.I.F.E. Support Network.
I’m thinking about these four people as the bail reform debate continues.
The crimes they were incarcerated for are what Jones calls “crimes of proximity”. Just like the wealthy congregate together, so do the hopeless, though not by choice. It’s a geographic and historical reality that weighs down entire city blocks.
Being hopeless doesn’t preclude the need for food. So hopeless people will do what they need to in order to survive. They’ll do what they see their neighbors doing. Sometimes, that means selling drugs, shop lifting, stealing baby formula and joining gangs.
Jones explained that when she was standing before the judge who sentenced her, he saw only the part of “Amy Jones” that was presented in court. He didn’t see the full “arc” of her life.
“When he said that (about CPS), I realized that in this man’s eyes, I wasn’t a human being. I wasn’t a nursing mom with a 6-week-old baby who was struggling with addiction,” Jones said. “I was just a problem. Without flinching, he sent me to jail.”
The story of Amy Jones is critical to understanding (what I think is) a disconnect between what Speaker Carl Heastie wants from bail reform, and what Minority Leader John Flanagan wants.
Heastie likely understands what it’s like to be part of a group that has been historically criminalized. As Jones says, “When you attach a negative connotation to a group of people, it’s easier to treat them with less humanity.”
This historical fact is why bail reform activists do not want judicial discretion. They ask, “What does a white judge from the suburbs understand about growing up black and poor without hope where surviving each day means being over-policed, in communities that were red-lined into existence?”
The other side of the issue is also understandable. How can we allow someone who’s been found guilty of a long list of past crimes to go home without posting bail? If we don’t allow judges some discretion, aren’t we putting the community in danger?
The response to this has been that, if that person with a long list of crimes can post bail, he’ll be allowed to go free prior to his trial anyway. But that’s cold comfort to one mom in Syracuse.
Today in a story that appeared on Spectrum News in Syracuse, the mother of a 22-year-old woman who was shot to death by her live-in boyfriend is grieving the release of the accused shooter under the new bail reform law. According to police, the boyfriend grabbed a loaded weapon and it went off by accident. Prosecutors are pursuing a reckless manslaughter charge.
Should we allow an accused batterer or murderer to return to the scene of his (alleged) crime? Can’t we find a compromise somewhere?
Albany Law School’s Mary Lynch believes we can. Lynch, a former Manhattan DA and the Kate Stoneman Chair in Law and Democracy is also the Director of the school’s Domestic Violence Prosecution Hybrid Clinic.
Lynch says she supports reform “that makes New York State citizens aware that we have never been a prevention detention state and that, despite that legal principle, judges have incarcerated low-income people and especially black and brown offenders in very large numbers before they have been found guilty.”
That said, she believes that the new law needs some reasonable fixes.
“For example, when the law mandates that the defense can request immediate access to a crime scene and that, ‘the premises remain unchanged,’ the law fails to properly and fully account for the difference between intimate crimes such as domestic violence or sexual assault and more impersonal ones such as a stranger or drug crime," she said.
According to Lynch, those latter crimes often occur away from one’s home, family and friend activities, school or daycare, and work.
“Victims of domestic violence and their children should not be forced to face again and again the thrown furniture or smashed personal objects which come hand in hand with domestic violence crime scenes,” she said.
This failure to recognize what domestic violence looks like in real life has led to a polarized discussion and is unintentionally hurting and traumatizing the most vulnerable victims: domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
Lynch is concerned that victims will be further deterred from reporting crimes or seeking help, and that advocates will not be able to provide victims and survivors with guidance on what to expect in a criminal prosecution because, at this point, a case may come down to which judge is assigned and how that judge rules on this law.
“I believe an easy and reasonable fix is to create a factor or presumption in special victims’ cases that mandates judges to hear about, consider, and prioritize a victim’s safety needs and trauma consequences before ruling on access to a crime scene or ‘ordering that the premises remain unchanged.’
"We do this in other areas of the law. Why not here?”
Whatever lawmakers decide to do, my hope is that they do it with compassion for both victims and the accused. Judging someone else by what you see right in front of you negates the person’s humanity.
What would you think if you walked into the barn towards the end John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and saw Rosasharn breastfeeding an adult man? Would you think 'those Okies are all promiscuous? Oh, those Okies are all disgusting animals?'
Or would you see the epic journey, starvation, a stillbirth and a triumph of the human spirit?