AN OPEN DEMOCRACY
The foundation of 21st century democracy is an open and connected community. Governor Cuomo’s New York is closed and backward-looking. There are three areas I would focus on to open up New York’s society and unleash the great talents and powers of our beautiful state:
a. Immigrant Dignity
Immigrants are woven into New York’s social fabric and are a pillar of our economy. We invite them to come work in our cities, and our state is more rich and vibrant because they take us up on it. Yet many of our state policies regularly deny undocumented residents access to basic services like higher education and banking, as well as the right to drive a car or borrow a library book – even though they pay their share of taxes. This is not just unfair to immigrants – it makes us all worse off.
One group affected most deeply by these policies is undocumented students, who must routinely forego higher education because they cannot access the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Without papers, there is no aid. As a result, immigrant students are more likely to drop out of high school and stop short of completing college, if they even make it that far. This lack of opportunity consigns undocumented students to low-paying jobs, fueling cycles of inequality. Students glimpsed the possibility of real change in the New York DREAM Act, which would expand state-funded tuition assistance to undocumented students – but the state senate failed to pass the bill by two votes. Governor Cuomo has said he supports the Act, but his actions signal that he is largely paying it lip-service and leading on his constituents. We should make it a priority to ensure this bill gets passed by the Senate and sign it immediately, so that all New Yorkers are free to access higher education and the opportunities it opens.
Another basic problem confronting undocumented residents is that they cannot get a driver’s license. This forces them into situations where they are breaking the law every time they drop-off a child at school or make a trip to the hardware store, and fosters a culture of fear of law enforcement. We should push legislation allowing undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses, a policy adopted by several other states, and endorsed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. This will make our roads safer, by requiring undocumented residents who already drive to enroll in driver’s education classes, and ensuring that the cars already on our roads are registered and insured. ￼￼￼￼￼
Voting is a basic principle of our democracy. Yet New York State presently disenfranchises individuals with criminal convictions, taking away their right to vote while they are in jail. This is undemocratic. We should follow the lead of Vermont and Maine, and ensure felons never lose their right to vote.
c. Criminal Justice Reform
Residents of New York State deserve a criminal justice system that is fair to all and that makes policies with an eye to their long-term impact, ensuring that we don’t address problems by only making them worse. Governor Cuomo has made strides in reforming our criminal justice system – but there is still a long way to go.
New York State must decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession, on the path to eventual legalization. This would drastically reduce the number of marijuana arrests, an overwhelming percent of which are just for possession. Worse, these arrests disproportionately target young African-Americans and Latinos.
These arrests cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually and needlessly introduce young people to the criminal justice system while saddling them with permanent criminal records. Being stigmatized this way has huge long-term consequences, making it far harder to find a job or get into school. We should be expanding opportunities for young blacks and Latinos rather than foreclosing them. Ending arrests for 15 grams or less of marijuana would help ensure our criminal justice system doesn’t lock up thousands of our young men for petty crimes. We should support legislation that decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana, and should propose a system to regulate and tax marijuana in ways similar to how state law treats alcohol. This new approach would end decades of costly and counterproductive policies that reinforce racially discriminatory outcomes and foreclose promising futures.
New York State should also raise the age of criminal responsibility. Presently, New York is one of two states left in the country that automatically prosecutes children as adults: around 50,000 16- and 17-years olds are tried as adults each year. Exposing children to the hazards of incarceration in the adult prison system endangers their well-being and risks setting them down a path of recidivism, as 80 percent of adolescents forced into the adult prison system go on to reoffend. We should ensure we treat children like children, and keep their formative years free from state-imposed isolation and potential abuse.
d. Marijuana Law Reform
We support expanding the current medical marijuana laws and permitting the regulated cultivation and sale of recreational marijuana to individuals over the age of 21. It is tim to take the sale and control of marijuana out of the hands of drug dealers, and use that revenue to build a better life for New Yorkers by building and repairing bridges, tunnels, roads, and our public schools.
Colorado’s revenue from the sale of medical and recreational marijuana – coupled with application fees –reached more than $30 million during the first six months of 2014. What’s more, this number tells only a small part of a story – as it omits revenues from property, income, and payroll taxes paid by business owners, as well as the income collected by over ten thousand employees working in the Colorado marijuana industry. Businesses in ancillary industries – like construction, security, marketing, and product development – have benefited too.
A recent report notes that Colorado has crafted smart monitoring and enforcement processes, and has also collected successfully the revenues necessary for effective regulation. New York should broadly follow the Colorado model, because it is based on good government and regulatory oversight. Not only would a similar program in New York generate funds we could use for schools and infrastructure, it would also save resources, by sparing courts and law enforcers from having to prosecute petty possession offenses.
In broadly following Colorado, New York should consider a ban against open and public consumption; a state-wide seed-to-sale inventory tracking program; an orderly application process for issuing licenses to responsible and qualified individuals and businesses; age limitations; purchase limitations; home-growing limitations; and most importantly, the use of revenues towards public schools and infrastructure.
e. Paula's Law
Individuals with developmental disabilities and their families overcome the biggest challenges every day. It is tragic and alarming that this population also confronts instances of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, all within the confines of our state-run facilities. I believe that cameras are a first step to avoiding and countering this abuse.
To this end, we vigorously support the passage of NYS Assembly Bill #1750 and NYS Senate Bill #2000, also known as “Paula’s Law,” which will mandate the installation of cameras outside of state-run group homes and day programs.
We applaud the advocates who are working hard to make this law a reality, and particularly Bill Liblick, whose sister Paula sustained brutal and fatal sexual abuse in our facilities.