Sep 17, 2021
New York Kathy Hochul Signs “Less is More” Law, To Release 191 Prison Inmates Press Conference Transcript
New York Governor Kathy Hochul ordered the release of 191 Rikers Island inmates and signed a criminal justice reform law on September 17, 2021. Read the transcript of the press conference here.
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Brian Benjamin: (00:13)
Well, good morning, everyone. Thank you all being put all for being here this morning for a very important announcement about criminal justice in the state of New York. I want to begin by acknowledging all of those who have joined us. I want to start with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senator Julia Salazar, Assembly Member David Weprin, Assembly Member Kenny Burgos, Assembly Woman Phara Souffrant Forrest, Assembly Woman Chantel Jackson, with her son, TJ, District Attorneys Melinda Katz from Queens, Eric Gonzalez from Brooklyn, Cy Vance from Manhattan, Darcel Clark from the Bronx, and Mimi Rocha from Westchester. I also want to acknowledge some of the advocates who are with us today. Donna Hilton, Executive Director of A Little Piece of Light, Emily Napier Singletary, co-Executive Director of Unchained, Kenyatta Thompson, Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. Zachary Katz Nelson, Executive Director of the Littmann Commission, Rabbi Hilly Helber, Central Synagogue and Religious Action Center New York, Marcellus Morris, Reign for Life, Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of NYCLU, and Reverend Peter Cook, Executive Director, New York Council of Churches. Next, I have the honor of introducing our Governor, Kathy Hochul.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:55)
Thank you to our great Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, who’s here in a dual capacity, and also is a forward thinking leader in our State Senate. He is the sponsor of a bill that I’m going to be discussing in a couple of moments. Also, very delighted to be joined by our leadership in the legislature. We have Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and our Speaker Carl Heastie here. I thank you for lending your cloud to this event today, because what we’re doing actually came out of your two respective bodies, and I’m very proud of the work that was done by your members, the sponsor in the Senate, as I mentioned, Brian Benjamin, but also Assembly Member Phara Forrest, who is also just a great leader on criminal justice reform, and I thank her. Also, having our District Attorneys here, I thank all of them for the work they do every single day. It’s not easy work. They are really the unsung heroes who have to dispense justice on a daily basis, and it’s not easy, but I have a lot of respect for what they do.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (02:49)
As well as our amazing advocates, thank you for never giving up the fight for people fighting for justice and fairness and ultimately redemption. And when you get a group of people like this from District Attorneys, to religious leaders, to electeds, and everyone, you just realize you have to be on the right side of history today. And you think about Dr. King, who talked about Drum Majors For Justice. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the band. These are the Drum Majors For Justice that have joined me here on this stage today. So thank you for being here. And I just want to give you a little bit of insights on to why this is so important to me personally. As New Yorkers start to get to know me better, it’s been three weeks on the job, they definitely would not know the fact that it was exactly 50 years ago last week, when as a 13 year old growing up in Buffalo, I was glued to the evening news. And it was easy because the only three stations. You turn between three stations, can you imagine?
Governor Kathy Hochul: (03:48)
And the news was captivating. What I saw was, not far from my home in a place called Attica, a sleepy little town, the world looked like it was on fire, it was exploding, and all the eyes of the world were watching this one place. And as a young person who grew up in a very socially conscious household, we talked about this at the dinner table and what was going on there and what this meant and how this could have happened in that day and age, 50 years ago. A lot of questions were raised. How did it happen? How did people not foresee this? How was it not prevented, the violence, the death, the destruction that occurred over that time? And I think about the fact that, similar to back then, maybe they didn’t have notice, but today we do. It’s a volatile situation that we have in one of our jails in the city of New York, in Rikers Island.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (04:43)
But also, I have hope because I know that there’s people who are long-time champions of doing what’s right. And I also witnessed that as a teenager. A couple of years after I watched this all on television, I became an intern in high school for the local ACLU, and in that capacity, and don’t tell my parents this, I skipped school a few times, took the bus, an hour bus ride down to the city of Buffalo, and went into a very foreboding courtroom. But I knew I wanted to sit there and witness history. And I watched the Attica Trials and I heard the stories come forth. So, to me, it was more than watching on television. I saw people’s faces and I heard what went on in those horrific, horrific circumstances. And I am steeled in the resolve that, that should not have happened 50 years ago and it sure as hell shouldn’t be happening 50 years later in 2021.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (05:34)
So what are we going to do about it? Well, I’ve been very focused on this and I want to thank my incredible team, the Executive Chamber staff and everyone who has been putting in countless hours to help us un-peel this situation and find out what we can do for a facility that is, no, not run by the State of New York. That’s very obvious. It’s a city run facility. But when there’s cries for help, it’s very hard to just walk away and pretend you don’t hear them. And these advocates know what I’m talking about. To see this, to hear this, to witness this, one says, “How does this hell on earth exists today?” And I also believe that what today is about is protecting human life, the lives of the people who are incarcerated, as well as the corrections officers. It’s about protecting human rights, the right to work in a safe environment, the right to live and exist in an environment that is clean, hygienic, and above all safe. It’s also about protecting human dignity.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (06:36)
Again, this questions who we are as a people when we can allow situations as we’ve seen in Rikers exist in a prosperous mighty city like New York. The fact that this exists is an indictment on everyone and I’m going to do what I can, and I’ve taken some actions that I want to explain today because no one, no inmate, no corrections officer, no family members who visit should have to witness the reality of Rikers as it exists today. So today we’re taking on an aspect of our criminal justice system that’s too often overlooked, the antiquated system of the parole system. Parole is meant to help people return to life, re-entry programs, and not just drop them on a curb and say, “Good luck,” but to have a system of monitoring when required to make sure that they comply with what they’re supposed to do, but ultimately become part of society again.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (07:31)
Debt has been paid. People are now free. They’re supposed to be part of the family again. That’s the premise behind parole. But for all too often in this state particularly, parole becomes a ticket back into jail because of very technical violations. Someone was caught with a drink or using a substance or missing an appointment. We call these the technical violations. And what it does is it lands people back in a place that they finally paid their debt to and were released from and they’re back among the masses. No chance of rehabilitation. No chance to get that job. No chance of getting reunited with their families. They are back because of a technical violation, and we have far too many. 65% of the people who have been returned on parole violations were for these technical violations. So it doesn’t make us any safer. These people weren’t a danger in the first place. They were released properly, and because of a technicality, they are returned.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (08:42)
So New York State incarcerates more people for parole rules violations than anywhere in the country. Let me repeat that. New York State incarcerates more people for parole violations than anywhere in the country. That is a point of shame for us and it needs to be fixed, and it’s going to be fixed today. And it’ll put us among the ranks of others, and this is almost embarrassing to say that Georgia and Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, already ahead of us on this. Little catching up to do here, folks. But we want to have people rejoin society. So we have a bill and, again, I commend the sponsors, my Lieutenant Governor, and the assembly member who worked so hard on this, and a lot of people who stood on behalf of people who often are forgotten other than by their families. And thank God we have these people who go out there every single day and put a spotlight on what is occurring behind bars.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (09:45)
So the Less Is More Act advances critical reforms to make our criminal justice a better and fairer institution. And what we’re going to do is bolster due process and have speedier hearings. What has happened is that people will spend more time waiting after parole, and this is again, parole, these are people who’ve already been released, technicality, they’re back in, they’ll spend more time waiting for their adjudication under that circumstance than actually the penalty would require. Think about that. They may only get a 30 day time they would have to pay for the parole violation and they have to wait 120 days to get to that. Think about the cruelty of that dynamic as well. So what we’re going to allow for is earned time credit for people who did not violate the conditions of their parole, shifting from a punitive model that locked up people to an incentive-based model to help New Yorkers who ran to their communities.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (10:44)
Again, we’ve seen it work in other cities and those of you who are fiscally conscious, I certainly find myself in that category because we deal with a major budget. It also saves money, and that is why there’s a lot of support from unlikely sources throughout the State of New York. It is saving money because these people do not need to be incarcerated to protect society. And the states that have done this have seen their recidivism rates drop significantly. So we’re going to also take some immediate action on Rikers. And I want to address the fact that these reports are deeply disturbing. And what I was concerned about when I reviewed this legislation that came before me is that the effective date is not until March of 2022. That was written by the legislature, I understand that. But I believe that we also have to take some very swift action and take it right now.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (11:34)
So the Board of Parole, under my direction, will have 191 people released today. They have served their sentences. They have served their sentences under the dictates of the new Less Is More, but they shouldn’t have to wait for the enactment date. 191 today. Separately from the parolees, we have a combustible situation still at Rikers because of overcrowding. What does that look like? It means there’s too many people and too few people to protect them and to guard them. So, as of today, I’m directing a brand new process in cooperation with the City of New York, and that’s probably a headline, “in cooperation with the City of New York”. We’re working closely with State Department of Corrections, City Department of Corrections, constant communication on how we can team up together and make some affirmative steps to resolve this. So, as of today, we’re directing that 40 sentenced prisoners be sent to Rikers Island each day for the next five days. People will be leaving Rikers, a volatile tinderbox, and allowed to go to another state facility.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (12:50)
And we’re going to have a review process. We have our teams embedded to make sure that people are properly released, but they’ll be released and sent to another place. Again, these are not the parolees. These are people who already have to do their time, and these are the people who have at least 60 to 90 days left on their term. Again, trying to take the pressure out of this situation. Over 200 people we expect, again, will be over the next few days. But we know that larger systemic problems still exist. We know that, and I believe that while we take these first steps, we encourage the City of New York to do what they need to do to alleviate the staffing situation and the other crisis situations. But I’m very proud that New Yorkers have stepped up here today to help, first of all, institute a system that is truly a justice system, a true justice system that doesn’t penalize people unfairly and gives people another chance in life.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (13:47)
And, also, we want to make sure that our streets are protected and that the people who work in our prisons and jails are also protected. So this is why it’s supported by so many entities across the state. So, again, my Drum Majors For Justice, I thank each and every one of you for being part of a journey that I believe that starting today will take significant steps with this new law, which I’ll be signing momentarily, but also a new program where the State of New York will be taking prisoners who otherwise would be incarcerated at Rikers, and, again, that process is beginning today. At least when we look back on 50 years ago, nothing was done to prevent what happened at Attica. I like to believe that what we’re doing here today is an affirmative step from the State of New York to say, “No more.” It begins here today. Thank you.
Brian Benjamin: (14:44)
Thank you. Thank you, Governor Kathy Hochul. Those are some great announcements. Wow. All right, moving on, we have the leader of the New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins: (14:57)
Thank you. Thank you, Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin. He used to be mine, but New York State will be well-served by the brilliance of Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin. He is also, and he’ll speak more about this, the sponsor in the Senate of this bill. So congratulations on both counts. And to our Governor, who reminds us all the time that she’s only been in this office for three weeks, I want to thank you for signing this bill, because in these three weeks, I’ve gotten a chance to stand with you several times, and each time is extremely important. So it is tough enough when you’re new, but then you have so many things on your plate and to try and deal with the emergencies and determine priorities and juggle it in a way that improves the lives of New Yorkers is really not an easy task. So the fact that we are standing here yet again with something that is this incredibly important is a credit to you. So thank you so much.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins: (16:28)
And I’m here with my friend and colleague, Speaker Heastie, and I was asking him before he came up, I said, “Did you guys pass this before we did?” Because, as you all know, the Senate used to be the place where progressive ideas and good ideas went to die. But since we took the majority in 2019, we have been the place where progress continues to happen, and I want to, again, give a shout out to my tier of crime and crime victims, as Senator Salazar, who’s here. And the reality is that we understand that there are a lot of injustices that we can and must work on, and that is what we’re committed to do. With our advocates, who you’ll hear from, the cooperation of our DAs, there’s so much to be done. And the Senate is no longer the place where injustice will be allowed to stand. Meek Mill and his story was able to shine a light on what so many people have gone through for so long, people who didn’t have the celebrity and the star power to bring that attention on, and you’ll hear from maybe one or two of them.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins: (18:08)
But you’ll meet them. People spent years, years longer than they should have because they were constantly thrown back in a system that would not allow them to be free and not acknowledge that they had actually paid their debt to society. This stops today because less is indeed more, and in that system, there was no way to get less. There was only a way to get more. This changes that. This allows people to be reintegrated in society with the support and the acknowledgement that they have paid their debt. I am so proud to have been able to push this through. People said, “Oh, the Senate. We know it’s hard.” Yeah, it’s hard. But you know what? Our Senate understands-
Andrea Stewart-Cousins: (19:02)
It’s hard, but you know what? Our Senate understands that we cannot… No longer delay justice and you’ll hear people say, “Oh, they’re letting people out.” Yeah. We let in 191 people out today who shouldn’t have been there. So let’s keep it up New York. We will continue to beat Alabama, and all of those other states. But thank you so much, governor.
Brian Benjamin: (19:28)
Next, we have the leader of the assembly speaker Carl Heastie.
Carl Heastie: (19:35)
Thank you, lieutenant governor. And let me just say a big thank you to our new Governor who is off to a fast and wonderful start and congratulations to you, our new lieutenant governor. First, let me thank the advocates. Those who have to deal with the everyday stories to some people and to the naysayers. A lot of times they look at what goes on in our criminal justice system is just mainly statistics, but they’re real lives. And the people that we’re trying to help today are people who’ve done everything that was asked of them, and then yet a mistake and addiction and oversight can cause you to have to go back. And when the governor rattled off the statistics that mentioned that New York state is the state that has the highest number of re incarcerations after technical violations, that’s not something that we should ever want to be first in.
Carl Heastie: (20:37)
And what’s even worse is anytime Alabama has a better criminal justice view, you know we have a problem. So I just think this is an extraordinary day, as everyone knows how important I’ve said criminal justice reform is a huge thing to me and personally, and in my speakership. And I know the naysayers are going to say, as the majority leader said, “Well, look, you’re letting more people out”, but again, we should be a society that looks about rehabilitating people, and reintegrating people, not re-incarcerating people again from mistakes, oversights or addictions. So, I, too, want to thank our wonderful bill sponsor Phara Souffrant Forrest, she’s a freshmen, but she took on a huge, and a difficult subject.
Carl Heastie: (21:27)
And they said we had never passed this bill before. So I want to thank her for her leadership in getting it across the finish line. She has a wonderful assistant, David, with her as well, and also want to thank all of the democratic members of the assembly for continuing to be, even when people disagree, that we always are focused on what is right. And also want to acknowledge that the great and hard work with our chair of the corrections committee, David Weprin. Thank you all. This is a great day.
Brian Benjamin: (21:59)
Next. We will hear from assembly member Phara Souffrant Forrest, and David.
Governor Hochul: (22:03)
No, I want this guy. This [inaudible 00:22:07] [crosstalk 00:22:09] [crosstalk 00:22:15]
Brian Benjamin: (22:16)
She pulled rank on me. [crosstalk 00:22:18]
Governor Hochul: (22:16)
She’s got grandkids, I don’t. That’s right.
Phara Souffrant Forrest: (22:22)
Thank you, Governor Hochul for bringing up Less is More and also for holding my baby. Good morning, everyone. I just wanted to start by saying thank you to everyone here for helping pass this bill. When I talk about Less is More, and the meaning of this bill, as I understand it, I have to come from, I have to speak of it as a nurse. And my theory has always been based on care. So when I was first approached with this bill, and the problems of our parole system, I thought about how can we make this process a more care centered process? And I had learned that parole itself is a reform to the criminal legal system. So New York was a pioneer by introducing a system where people could, through good behavior, earn back time in their communities. Key to this, is the idea that the best rehabilitation is one that happens among loved ones, with opportunities to grow and thrive in the community. Today’s parole system and its pattern of recommitting so many people, particularly black and brown men shows the insidious hold that capitalism, and racism have on our criminal justice system.
Phara Souffrant Forrest: (23:40)
This creates a perverse incentive to punish rather than support… Aw, booboo, it’s okay. [crosstalk 00:23:47] Oh, no no. Less is More returned some of humanity to this system follows through on a mission of supportive community supervision, but we’re not just here to talk about the theory of criminal legal reform, we are here because Less is More saves lives. There has been a brewing crisis in our jails and prisons across the state. Recently I visited Rikers, and what I saw there was a humanitarian crisis, is a humanitarian crisis. It’s criminal. It’s dire. I saw men housed as animals in pens, right? Feces on the ground, starvation, and a stench of human decay that pervaded every corner of the facility. And as a society, we cannot afford to treat human beings like this. We have other options to offer support, care, de-carcerate, and to offer real opportunities for people to grow, succeed, and self-actualize, and Less is More will relieve this crisis, and give people a shot at dignity.
Phara Souffrant Forrest: (24:51)
That’s why I’m so proud and so grateful to so many people that stand behind this bill. Together, we built movement that it highlighted the needs of black, and brown families, and working class communities across the state. It’s been a pleasure to work with Cattell, Unchained, Little Piece of Light, and so many organizations. I want to also thank every incarcerated person who shared their stories, their families who shared their stories. And you made it clear that this movement stood for human dignity. I’d also like to thank Lieutenant Governor Benjamin Brian. Brian Benjamin, I’m sorry. I wrote it [crosstalk 00:25:28].
Brian Benjamin: (25:27)
I got two first names. It’s fine.
Phara Souffrant Forrest: (25:32)
Brian Benjamin! Speaker Heastie, Majority Leader Cousins, Assembly Member Weprin. You carried that for me and their staffs for their hard work and the advocacy around this issue. And I want to reserve a special thing to Governor Hochul. It’s been a real honor to work together on this bill. And I’m looking forward to continuing to work together, to build a New York that works for all people, black, brown, poor and working class. [crosstalk 00:26:00] Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. [crosstalk 00:26:06]
Brian Benjamin: (26:13)
Next, you do a lot of things, Governor Hochul. Next, we have the executive director of a Little Piece of Light, Ms. Donna Hilton. [crosstalk 00:26:21]
Donna Hilton: (26:21)
Thanks, Benjamin Brian. Good, what are we? Morning, afternoon? What a good day. When you come to things like this, you usually have something prepared, but I didn’t want to be prepared because I want it to come from my heart because I’m not just speaking for myself, I’m speaking for the thousands, thousands of New Yorkers who have been suffering for far too long. And before I continue, I just want to give you a special, thank you. I just really want to give you a special thank you. And yes, I’m going to say it, when women rule. When women rule, how things can change. How we can find compassion and understanding, and we can recognize what we’ve done wrong, but we can’t do that alone. I want to thank those who are not in the room with us now. I want to thank them many organizations and supporters who’ve helped us in these plus three years to get this bill signed into law.
Donna Hilton: (27:34)
I want to call in Exodus Transitional Community. Women’s Community Justice Association, the Justice for Women Task Force. I want to call in all those New Hour for Children. I want to call in all those who continue to stand beside us. And why am I calling them in? Because I’m a woman that served 27 years in New York state’s criminal legal system. I went in Rikers island as an adolescent, and I was tortured. That was 1985. This is 2021. 36 years later, we are still being tortured and treated like worse than animals, because I’m sure everyone in this room and under the sound of my voice, who has a dog, or a cat, or a pet, that’s your family, and you would never treat them like that. And so I’m thankful that today, the governor instituted immediate action because she recognizes the humanitarian crisis that we’ve been suffering with for decades.
Donna Hilton: (28:42)
This just didn’t happen. This did not just happen. And we can’t continue to have stuff like this happen. So I’m really thankful for the thousands of New Yorkers and impacted to communities, black and brown communities, especially, like Phara just said, who continued to be harmed, who continue to be overlooked, who continued to be silenced, and marginalized, who continue to die because they’re walking while black or brown. So, I’m really thankful that we have progressive minds like we have now. And I just want to say, thank you on behalf of all of us [crosstalk 00:29:19] Really. Thank you.
Brian Benjamin: (29:25)
I also like to acknowledge that we’ve been joined by a semi member, Latrice Walker. Next we have from Unchained, the co-executive director, Emily Napier Singletary.
Emily NaPier Singletary: (29:46)
Well, it’s a new day in New York. Thank you, Governor Hochul. You can’t know what it means to hear someone talk about the issues that people are facing in our jails and prisons and not just say what needs to be said, but do what needs to be done, and I thank you for that. Also, thank you, Lieutenant Governor Benjamin, assembly member Souffrant Forrest, it’s really an honor to be here amongst so many people who have worked so tirelessly on this. Our organization Unchained is based in Syracuse, and I’m very proud to be here representing central and Western New York, regions of our state that are so often forgotten in the movement for justice. Even though those of us who live there know our communities, too, have been devastated by mass incarceration and mass supervision. And I’m also proud to stand here representing our members in jails and prisons across the state.
Emily NaPier Singletary: (31:03)
My husband, Derek who leads Unchained alongside me. You heard the Lieutenant governor Benjamin introduced me as the co-executive director of Unchained. Derek is our other co-executive director, and he’s been in state prison for more than 11 years. He leads the organization from the inside. Major provisions in the Less is More Act came directly from Derek who drafted and edited this bill from his prison cell, drawing on his expertise as someone who has been on parole in the past and faced technical violations in the past. That’s an incredible accomplishment, and his impact is going to be felt for generations to come now that this bill is being signed into law today. We launched Unchained together three years ago with a vision of bringing currently incarcerated people into the movement for justice, and we’re doing that, yet, Derek can’t be here today to celebrate this victory with all of us that belongs as much to him as to anyone else in this room. I do want to acknowledge that Derek’s grandmother who raised him, Cecilia Johnson is here in the room representing Derek.
Emily NaPier Singletary: (32:32)
My mother-in-law who I cherish. But I live every day with the heartache of being separated from the person I love most in this world. And so I relate very much to the families of the 35,000 people across the state who are under parole supervision right now, and live in constant fear of having their family torn apart again, because as we’ve heard of a simple mistake or an addiction, or a struggle that needs a remedy that is not jail or prison. You’ve already heard a lot of the statistics about how New York is the worst in the country when it comes to re incarcerating people for technical violations, black folks are five times more likely and Latinx people are 30% more likely to be incarcerated for a technical violation than white people. But this stops today. It’s a new day in New York. New York will no longer have that distinction of being the worst in the country when it comes to re incarcerating people for technical parole violations.
Emily NaPier Singletary: (33:50)
Instead of New York is an acting the most transformative overhaul to parole in the country. It’s a complete paradigm shift, creating incentives for people to do well rather than simply punishing them when they struggle. The Less is More Act is about racial justice. It’s about economic justice and it’s about freedom. It’s about the physical freedom of not locking people up for things that are not even crimes, but it’s also about the mental freedom of knowing that your family won’t be ripped apart, and your success won’t be erased because you make a mistake or you need help. And it’s about the hope that comes with the ability to earn early discharge from parole by demonstrating that you are doing well. I’m going to close with something that Derek said when he spoke virtually at one of our events at NYU Law School, Lieutenant Governor Benjamin was there for this. And Derek said, “When it comes to parole, less is more, but when it comes to reform, more is more.” And I think we have an administration, and a legislature that understands that and will honor that sentiment, and I thank you all for that.
Brian Benjamin: (35:10)
All right, next, we have district attorney from the Borough of Brooklyn, Eric Gonzalez.
Eric Gonzalez: (35:25)
Thank you. Good morning, everyone. I want to thank our governor for inviting me, but Governor Hochul, I want to thank you even more for having the courage to sign the Less is More into lore. Three years ago, myself, and some of our district attorneys, we were at a press conference calling for Less is More to be signed, to be passed in Albany because we understood that this bill and now this law, is about justice. This is about keeping the community safe, and this bill allows us to do that effectively as district attorneys. And I want to acknowledge all the DA’s that are on this stage that have supported Less is More from the very beginning. Safety and justice go hand in hand, and you can’t have one without the other. This bill allows the district attorneys to focus in on those who are a threat in our communities to make sure that we can properly use our resources. And I heard the governor talk about it’s the right thing to do. It saves money. I heard others talk about what this bill means in terms of now this law means in terms of human dignity, it also means that people who do not belong in prison will not be there.
Eric Gonzalez: (37:10)
It means that the parole system, which was designed in actually to encourage and support people in their re-entry after they have paid, their debts will be successful and not be yo-yoed through our criminal justice system, and as both Donna and Emily said the impact on the community, and family members being separated over and over again for technical violations have not one iota to do with public safety. It comes from an era of being tough on crime, but not smart on it. And so as the district attorney of Brooklyn, this is very consistent with what I’ve tried to do in my county. And I know that my colleague DA’s have also tried to do, which is move away from over- incarceration, focus in, smart…
Eric Gonzalez: (38:03)
… over-incarceration, focus in smartly and appropriately on the use of our justice system to keep our community safe, but also to make sure that we promote justice. We work very hard to make sure that in my office, that we’re very smart on what we ask our courts to do. So in Brooklyn, I no longer ask for the maximum period of parole unless that’s necessary. And I support parole applications as they come through the system, because we know that bringing communities back together is a true path to true safety.
Eric Gonzalez: (38:41)
So governor, and to all the legislative leaders, I am thankful as the DA of Brooklyn entrusted with the safety of my community, but also fairness that this bill has been signed into law. To the sponsors, congratulations, it’s a good day. And finally, to all the advocates. We’ve heard some of the advocates, Speaker Ready to [inaudible 00:39:07] to Fortune Society, to the many people who have labored. Congratulations. The governor is releasing nearly 200 people today. That’s a good thing. There’ll be thousands of people who will never have to go through what these folks went through. And with the Riker’s crisis and the continuation of COVID in our prisons, when we’re being humane about who needs to be in prison, that’s a good day for all of us. So governor, congratulations.
Brian Benjamin: (39:48)
Okay. So we have reached the part of the program where the MC lieutenant governor and bill sponsor gets to say a few words, but more importantly, I am the last thing between our governor signing this bill. So I will be very expeditious in my remarks.
Brian Benjamin: (40:07)
When I ran for Senate a few years ago, I remember my first church I went to, Antioch Baptist Church on 125th street. And I said, I want to make sure I do two things as your Senator. One of them was reducing over-incarceration in New York state. And how I define over-incarceration is it’s incarceration beyond the need for public safety. When you look at how we incarcerate in New York state, I believe we incarcerate way beyond the need for public safety. And a lot of it is fear-driven and based in old models and tactics. And so, as I looked for legislation to carry, I was very interested in legislation that I thought met these requirements.
Brian Benjamin: (41:02)
And I cannot tell you how moved I was when the Patel, [Onchains 00:57:03], Donna, and others brought this bill to my attention as a Senator. Because when you get to understand, governor, the complications around how I don’t even know what’s the better word to use, around how technical parole violations can lead to more incarceration than the original crime in some cases. You say to yourself, was this done particularly to harm poor black and brown communities, or was this done to keep us safe? It is hard to imagine it was done to keep us safe when you consider the items involved. Missing curfew, dirty urine, being late for an appointment with a parole officer, driving, just things that you might have to do as a natural course of life. If you live upstate, how do you get from your house to a job, which by the way, is another requirement, without using some sort of transportation.
Brian Benjamin: (42:25)
This is not New York City where we can all jump on a train or a bus. So the question becomes, where are we thinking about some of these things when we have this system in place? A story that I wanted to leave with you that really compelled and moved me to do everything I can for the last few years, I think has been three years to help move this bill along was a story out of Syracuse, a gentleman who was out on parole, governor. He proposed to a woman who had a criminal background, but she had served her debt, but she had a background. He proposed to her. Now, by the way, family values, these are kinds of things that people believe makes sense. His act of proposal led to him being violated because one of the provisions within the technical violations, that you cannot fraternize with any person, any person who has had a criminal record.
Brian Benjamin: (43:38)
By the way, in some families, I might say to you, that could be half the family. So what you are saying is for someone to not be reincarcerated, they have to, in some cases, not even communicate or spend time with their family in order to not be violated. To me, that is unconscionable. And that is what Governor Kathy Hochul is doing away with today. That is what she is doing away with today. We can, because I see we have our law enforcement here. We have our district attorneys. There. Our sheriffs, the Arie County Sheriff. There are law enforcement and activists and elected officials all on the same team to say less is more. So when people want to come and say, oh, what are you letting people out? Let’s be clear about who we’re letting out and why.
Brian Benjamin: (44:41)
The recognizance hearing. Let me just say really briefly, I believe the role of the parole officer… In my opinion, I don’t like the word parole officer, but I’ll leave that aside for a second. I think the role of the parole officer should be rehabilitation, support services, right? If someone has a mental health issue, if someone has drug addiction, the answer should not be prison. Prison is not a drug treatment facility. It’s not a mental health facility. We should be directing people and driving them towards getting the help they need. We criminalize poverty way too much in our society and we criminalize addiction, but we pick and choose the addictions we want to criminalize. I won’t get into that.
Brian Benjamin: (45:32)
I’m going to be a good lieutenant governor today, Madam Governor. I’m going to be good today, but let me just reign that in before that goes in the wrong direction. But let me say, and I’m going to close because I’m very emotional right now. And I see everyone here, it’s just amazing. I just want to thank our governor because quite frankly, we passed the bill with an effective date of March 1st and she has seen the crisis that is occurring. She pulled me in. I know there’s some people who like to keep track of whether the lieutenant governor has a job or not. So I want to bring that up. She pulled me in, along with her team and had me in the conversations and in the negotiations, how we were dealing with what was going to happen, which by the way she didn’t have to do. But I want to thank you, Governor Kathy Hochul for being a woman of your word, but also for recognizing that maybe that the former Senator from Harlem might have some things to share and add to the conversation.
Brian Benjamin: (46:40)
I think that what she is doing here today will really start a movement across this country. As was mentioned, we are going from worst to first in New York state. We are moving from being in the worst position, as it relates to parole reform on technical parole violations to being in the best position. And we could not do that without everyone on this stage, but all those outside and we got the audience outside, who have fought, who have bled, who have really put their lives on the line to make sure that today Governor Kathy Hochul can sign Less is More. Thank you very much. [crosstalk 00:47:51].
Governor Hochul: (47:51)
All these are pens, I probably should have stuck with my original name, which is Kathleen Mary Courtney Hochul, but it says Kathy Hochul.
Governor Hochul: (48:18)
[crosstalk 00:48:18] I didn’t pay attention to the nuns when they’re trying to teach me how [inaudible 00:48:22]. You know those catholic school kids with beautiful handwriting? I was a little more rebellious than that. Little to no surprise. Let me [inaudible 00:48:33] this first batch [crosstalk 00:48:44]. You guys are pros in here.
Speaker 1: (49:00)
Governor Hochul: (49:00)
Should I start giving them out? [inaudible 00:49:02].
Speaker 1: (49:03)
Governor Hochul: (49:03)
I’m going to give the first one to my lieutenant governor.
Brian Benjamin: (49:12)
Governor Hochul: (49:14)
Yeah, guilty. All right. To my leaders, my legislative champions as well.
Speaker 2: (49:25)
Yeah, that’s [inaudible 00:49:27].
Brian Benjamin: (49:25)
I got two.
Governor Hochul: (49:42)
Always pushing, always pushing [crosstalk 00:49:42].
Brian Benjamin: (49:42)
Governor Hochul: (49:42)
We got our picture?
Speaker 3: (49:58)
Gentleman in the red, over here please. All right. Now for the next group. Can we have the elected officials, please? Step forward.
Speaker 3: (50:01)
Brian Benjamin: (51:11)
I can take my back. I thought he wasn’t going to get one. So I wanted to give it to him.
Brian Benjamin: (51:14)
Governor Kathy Hochul: (59:42)
(silence). Thank you for staying. Obviously, it was very emotional to be around a lot of people who’ve lived this for such a long time and waiting for this day. We need a lot of tissues at this event. But thank you. To the press, we’re going to start with a few questions now. Gloria, you had a question.
Thank you, Governor. I want to first ask you a little bit [inaudible 01:00:03]. So 191 people being released today, but what about the hundreds more that do have parole violations or parole holds on them? What’s going to happen to them? I know there’s a detail of implementation. Why not fully implement the law now, given the state of things which you talked about?
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:00:24)
I would like nothing more than to implement the law now. I legally cannot change the effective date. Only the legislature can. We examined this. We looked hard, and what we found was an opportunity for us to release 191 people who’ve already met the conditions that are required for a lease under less is more. So we have that universe of people that are eligible today, and I thought there was no reason to make them wait until the effective date in March and let them go. But I also think that this sends a message to all others in this system that this is the law, going forward, and we believe that this is going to result in fewer people being picked up and arrested and incarcerated, because they’ll see what the law is. They’ll know it will be in effect very shortly in a few months, and I would have liked to just declare it effective. See, I just did the best I could with the law as written. Another question.
So is the 191 people just out of Rikers, or are you also planning to release people from other jails statewide?
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:01:28)
That was from Rikers to alleviate the pressure cooker, which could explode at any time. But we’ll be looking at other people who qualify, right, Jeremy, other people who qualify around the state. This is just an immediate Rikers-driven situation, but absolutely people who’ve met that threshold in other parts of the state, and there are certainly many more. We’ll be looking at the opportunities to release them as well. We just want to target this today.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:01:58)
Our team has been working very closely, and what we’ve actually done with the individuals, not the people who are on parole violations, who are incarcerated on technicalities, there’s also a group of individuals that we’re releasing at 40 at a time, as I mentioned. Those individuals are going to be transferred to state facilities. The state of New York will absorb the cost for the first 200 in concert with the city of New York, and we hope that there’ll even be more after that. So that has been in constant collaboration with the mayor’s team.
Speaker 4: (01:02:32)
Permit me a two-part question. First, the bill would hopefully reduce violence at Rikers, given the lower population, but at the same time, what’s being done about gang violence at Rikers, which doesn’t necessarily relate to the population? That’s number one. Number two, an increasing number are stating that the city is not really equipped to handle Rikers. At a city council hearing earlier this week, it was revealed that one in five corrections officers call in sick one day. Should the state get involved and possibly even go so far as to call the National Guard?
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:03:11)
We’ve examined our options, and we’re trying to figure out how we can play a supporting role. Again, the primary role is the city of New York. They have the responsibility. They have the guards represented by certain entities, and they have to follow their rules. I absolutely will defer to the mayor on that. I’m not trying to come in as the heavy from the state of New York. I am simply trying to find a way that by signing this law, I can reduce the population overall. That is the contribution we can make as a state, is to reduce the numbers, the two categories of people I just addressed, and that is an important start. We’ll continue our conversations, though, to find out how we can help, but they need to figure this out as well. We’ll work with them. The first question-
Speaker 4: (01:03:56)
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:03:56)
Yeah, the gang violence. Again, I wish I had a magic wand that solved that as well. But I do believe that a lot of the problems are derived from the fact that there cannot possibly be sufficient oversight and protection of the people who are incarcerated or the protection of fellow guards. I mean, it’s bad for everyone in that environment right now. If we can just take numbers out of that environment, and this is going to increase. This will continue beyond just today. We just had our dramatic announcement today, numbers that people didn’t expect to be free today, but also knowing that that is going to have an overall effect on what is going on in that environment. That includes the gang activity. It’s about reducing the population.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:04:39)
The Population went up. We have worked very hard in the state of New York to close prisons, to have more de-incarceration, and to find people opportunities for re-entry. I’ve worked very hard on this, joining many, many of the organizations that … I’ve seen personally people who were incarcerated getting training for medical coding, for welding, all kinds of training in how to be a good parent. I have walked these halls and sat with these people for years. So I’m very passionate about this. But what I can only do today in respect to this bill was to open up the opportunity for fewer people to be in there in the first place. COVID has also been an exacerbating factor here. We cannot dismiss the fact that there are many more people who have not been adjudicated, who are still sitting there, and that’s the pressure valve I want to take off by moving them. Two more. Let’s take this one.
Speaker 5: (01:05:27)
Governor, when the bail reform passed, the police commissioner of the city of New York blamed that for an uptick in crime here. A couple of folks addressed this today, but if even one of the 191 people released today does something wrong, can you already anticipate that the NYPD and other entities might say, “You guys did this”?
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:05:50)
These are people who’ve already paid their debt to society, who are on parole for a technical violation, meaning that as you heard from the lieutenant governor so eloquently said they may have fraternized with someone else who had a criminal record, even if it’s a fiance. They may have actually driven a car somewhere when they were told they cannot drive because whatever the conditions were, or someone who was told you cannot use substances or you can’t drink. So that’s the category we’re talking about. I will tell you right now, there’s always a risk to everything. But the question is, do we step back, let a possible Attica be erupting under our watch, or do I as a state leader have the courage to say, “You know what? Here’s what I can do. This is the universe that I have control over”?
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:06:36)
I can sign a bill. I can also release people under very specific conditions and lend a supporting role to the city, which has the primary role of overseeing this, as every other local entity does with their jails and services. There’s no guarantees in life, which you also just have to … Sometimes you have to do what you believe is right, and I believe that people will understand the rationale behind this, particularly when we have sheriffs as far as Erie County and district attorneys and many in law enforcement who know that I’m trying to just … I know what a pressure cooker looks like. I’ve worked in the kitchen a few times, and I’m trying to make sure it doesn’t blow up. This is what I can do as the leader of the state.
So just to ask [inaudible 01:07:16] the district attorney. I’m sorry.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:07:17)
[inaudible 01:07:17]. One sec.
Let’s go to Zoom. [inaudible 01:07:18].
Andrea Stewart-Cousins: (01:07:18)
The question comes from Chris Sommerfeldt of The Daily News. Chris, your mic’s open.
Hi, Governor. Can you hear me?
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:07:32)
Yes, I can, Chris.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins: (01:07:34)
Thank you for taking my question. I was wondering, you were mentioning that you foresee that the city also needs to take additional action here beyond this to make Rikers a more safe and livable place. I was wondering, what specifically do you think the mayor needs to do beyond the action you have taken today? As a separate question, why is the mayor not here with you today?
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:08:05)
Well, we have advocates who have fought for a state piece of legislation that was passed by the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate. These are not passed by the city council. So there is not that nexus when it comes to what we did here today. You cannot infer from that that there’s not been full cooperation. We would not be transferring individuals if we weren’t embedded with the corrections teams in the city and working closely with our state teams. So please don’t read into anything by the fact that the mayor has other things on his plate. As far as what he can do, I’m not going to ever stand here and point fingers. I’m going to say I’ve seen what his steps have been taken. He is trying to make sure that the workforce stays on the job, and he’ll have to perhaps take extraordinary measures.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:08:50)
That is what has to be occurring. He understands that this is his responsibility. I’m not going to cast dispersions. I want to say thank you to the city for cooperating with us as we find a way to alleviate the burden, at least with the ones that we can find a place for today will serve out the rest of the time or those who’ve met the standards under the less is more legislation that we just signed that should be out anyhow. So that’s as far as I’d read into anything, Chris. Marie, do you have a question? One more on the video?
I think that’s all the time we have.
Governor Kathy Hochul: (01:09:21)
Okay. One more question.
[crosstalk 01:09:23] the only one who stayed here to talk. Thank you for staying. I just want to ask about the question of bail in all of these. These are pretrial detainees, many of them on non-violent felonies or misdemeanors. DAs are still asking for bail. All of the other DAs, the ones who left and wouldn’t take questions have all recently acknowledged the conditions. Yet they’re still asking for bail. Why is that happening? What is your office doing about that specifically so that people aren’t continuing to be sent to the island?
Eric Gonzalez: (01:09:59)
All right. Thank you for the question, Gloria. It’s an important question. I want to back up and say for a second that the obligation to make sure that Rikers Island can fulfill its obligation to public safety while keeping the folks who are detained there is the obligation of the city. As a district attorney, of course I am very concerned about what’s happening. During COVID, during the heart of COVID, my office agreed to the release of over 350 people who are medically vulnerable so that we could bring down the population. What we’ve seen is the population tick up, because there has not been a lot of capacity to get dispositions and try cases. So the disposition rate in the courthouse has been lowered because of the pandemic. We’ve also seen, quite frankly, the inability to get detainees in Rikers into court and to do things because of the staffing shortage.
Eric Gonzalez: (01:11:03)
I want to acknowledge what the governor’s done today is allowing me as District Attorney to keep the people safe by making sure that when people are violent, when people have committed serious crimes, when they repeatedly get rearrested for committing the same crimes that there is actually a safe space within Rikers Island to keep those people. So in terms of what I’m doing, I’ve directed my staff not to ask for bail unless a public safety reason exists. I’ve also asked my executive team to look at the approximately 1,100 people who are currently in Rikers Island from Brooklyn to see whether or not any of those people can be safely released. I’ve also asked the correctional medical facility to send me any letters of people who are medically vulnerable to see whether or not we can release those people.
Eric Gonzalez: (01:11:56)
But there was a question about the violence and what we can do. When we get these few hundred people out between Less is More and the other things we’re going to do, that is going to allow the correctional staff that is reporting to work to keep us safe. The gang violence will be reduced. There’s a ninefold increase in gang violence from young people from 18 to about 21, 22 years old. There’s not enough space to separate them, and so part of the plan to reduce violence is as we get people who do not need to be in Rikers Island off the island, we’ll be able to reduce the violence by separating the younger people who have been actively engaged in the violence. That will also keep our corrections officers safer, because right now, they’re outnumbered in terms of on a cell block, everyone on that block could be a member of a particular gang, and any time a correction officer has to take action, they have to battle that entire cell block. It’s not safe for them.
Eric Gonzalez: (01:12:59)
Getting these people out, reducing the number of people in there will make sure that that island does not explode. So congratulations, Governor, and the sponsors and the lieutenant governor. This is a big deal, but I want to be really clear. This can be done safely. There’s more that the mayor needs to do. There’s a federal monitor and a federal judge, and there’s things that that federal monitor has said. For now, he thinks this obligation remains with the city and the Department of Corrections, but this is something that’s going to have to have a staffing plan. I would say that the federal monitor should go before the federal judge and demand that the city have a staffing plan for Rikers Island in the immediate future.
Okay, the senator has to go, but [crosstalk 01:13:48].
Brian Benjamin: (01:13:51)
What’s the timeframe for the release of the 191 people? Is that happening today, next week?
Speaker 6: (01:13:56)
That’ll be happening today.
Brian Benjamin: (01:13:57)
Speaker 7: (01:13:58)
Can I ask you a question, [crosstalk 01:14:00]?
Brian Benjamin: (01:13:59)
Speaker 7: (01:14:01)
So this is an immediate move to deal with what’s an immediate problem, but clearly what’s going on on Rikers is more than that.
Brian Benjamin: (01:14:09)
Speaker 7: (01:14:11)
What ideas do you have long-term to fix what’s going on at Rikers, and what can the legislature do to help what’s going on at Rikers long-term?
Brian Benjamin: (01:14:21)
Sure. We’re going to be working with Mayor DeBlasio and then incoming mayor, whoever that is, on collaborative approaches. I think, as you know, Rikers is a city-run facility, and so we cannot overstep our bounds as a staple. We’ll be working in partnership with the mayor. This is obviously something that Governor Hochul believes in, which is accountability across the state. She wants to make sure that Rikers Island and every other facility in our state actually is a place that is habitable.