NYCLU demands legislative action on civil liberties issues

NYCLU advocates converge on West Capitol Park in Albany. Gazette photo by James Gormley.

Members, supporters and advocates for the New York Civil Liberties Union rallied Monday outside the Capitol in support of several bills they say would protect and expand civil rights. Public defense funding and reform, reproductive rights, transgender discrimination, electronic privacy, and police data transparency were all on the agenda for the group’s day of action.

Speakers Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, and Darren Mack, a former inmate at Rikers Island prison, advocated for the Justice Equality Act (A.1903), sponsored by Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany.

“I was in Rikers Island for 19 months when the population was at its peak of 23,000 detainees,” Mack said. “Public defenders were overworked and under-resourced. I had an attorney that was adamant about me pleading guilty to my charge. It would be weeks, sometimes months before I saw this attorney, and that was the case for so many people detained in these jails.”

Gradess called New York’s decision to place the public defense burden on the counties a “crime.”  “We asked the counties to carry out the state responsibility of protecting the poor in criminal cases,” he said. “The counties have since dropped the ball.”

He cited the number of plea deals in the state as a measure of dysfunction in the court system.

“The plea rate in this state is between 95 and 97 percent. There are some counties that haven’t seen a trial in decades. It is time to fix this system. It is time to pass this bill.”

The NYCLU also wants to fix New York’s outdated abortion law, which currently criminalizes terminating a pregnancy after 24 weeks except in cases of life or death for the mother. The Reproductive Health Act (A.1748/S.2796), sponsored by Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan, and Senator Liz Kreuger, D-Manhattan, would update New York law to bring it in line with the Supreme Court rulings regarding Roe v. Wade.

The law would permit late-term abortions, of which speakers Erika Christensen and Garin Marshall shared their personal experience. The couple was forced to travel to Colorado to terminate their pregnancy, after they learned their baby would be unable to breathe outside of the womb.

“Let’s admit that every pregnancy is unique, that every woman’s circumstances are unique, and that we can’t legislate what’s best for her,” Marshall said. “Let’s not pretend that lawmakers can imagine every scenario that might necessitate or lead to an abortion. Let’s instead accept that a termination might be the best outcome.”

In the wake of the Trump Administration’s rollback of protections for transgender and gender nonconforming Americans, the NYCLU is advocating for the passage of the Gender Identity and Nondiscrimination Act (A.3358/S.502), sponsored by Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Senator Daniel Squadron, D-Carroll Gardens, as well as amending the state human rights law to protect them from discrimination.

Additionally, advocates for the NYCLU want to further protect New Yorkers’ privacy by limiting government surveillance and barring personal information from federal databases.

The New York State Electronic Communications Privacy Act (A.1895), sponsored by Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Bronx, would require a warrant issued by a judge before police can monitor New Yorkers’ phone calls, emails, and text messages.

In order to combat what the NYCLU calls “the Trump Administration’s regressive criminal justice agenda,” the group’s leadership and members want a community serving policing model in as proposed in the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (A.5946/S.147), sponsored by Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, and Senator Squadron. The bill would require police to report encounters that lead to an arrest, summons, ticket or prosecution.

It would also require information on deaths that occur while in police custody be accessible to the public.

Gwenn Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died during an encounter with NYPD in July 2014, spoke to the crowd about the importance of fairness in policing.

“We must demand that our elected officials make police departments collect the data and report the data on these police killings,” Carr said. “Our New York state leaders have to remember that we have a vote. And if they want our vote, they have to come and get it. They have to bring something to the table, or they will be on the menu.”

Gwenn Carr, mother of Eric Garner, speaks to the crowd about police accountability. Gazette photo by Katherine Carroll.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been a staunch opponent and fighting force against the Trump Administration’s policies, and utilized their day of action by speaking with legislators. “The ACLU’s mission is defending our bill of rights, and the guarantees of equality and justice,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “And with a president and congress with an agenda shaped by hate, fear, and bigotry, we are facing the biggest threat to our democracy in history.”