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‘The Number One Issue in Our Budget This Year Is Locking Up Black and Brown People’

An interview with Assemblymember Latrice Walker, on the fifth day of her hunger strike to protest bail law rollbacks.

2:21 PM EDT on April 14, 2023

Assemblymember Latrice Walker. (NY Assembly)

As New York Governor Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders prepare to enter their third week of negotiations beyond the budget deadline, it's clear that the primary obstacle to an on-time budget has been Hochul's resolute insistence on the legislature agreeing to adopt a sweeping plan to overturn decades of New York legal precedent and give judges broad power to lock people in jail before their trials for virtually whatever reason they please.

Experts and the governor's own budget documents all say that Hochul's initiative won't actually make people safer. The only thing it's sure to do is drive up the number of New Yorkers subjected to the violence and disruption of jail. Legislative leaders have pushed back on the governor's demands, but with so many other issues at stake in this year's budget negotiations, it remains unclear whether the secretive horse trading that takes place in the opaque three-people-in-a-room system by which New York makes its policy will lead to concessions on bail. 

It's an uncomfortably familiar scenario for Assemblymember Latrice Walker, a Democrat representing Brownsville and Ocean Hill in Brooklyn. Walker authored the landmark bail reform legislation of 2019 that made it less easy for judges to send people to jail before their trials. In the years since, police, prosecutors, conservative media, and opportunistic politicians have seized on the message that bail reform has made New York City less safe, even as data repeatedly shows that this is not the case.

Walker has watched as Hochul and her predecessor, year after year, use the state budget process to chip away at the reforms she authored, and in 2022, she went on a hunger strike to protest efforts to roll back the progress the state has made on criminal justice reform. On Sunday, and for the same reasons, Walker went on hunger strike again. Hell Gate spoke with her Thursday afternoon, on the fifth day of her hunger strike.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Nick Pinto: Nice to speak with you. How are you? How are you feeling, physically and emotionally?

Assemblymember Latrice Walker: It's a lot. Today was an easier day. Yesterday was pretty tough. I had a headache. But I guess once you get beyond that first three days, it becomes a little easier to manage. My strength is high. My resolve has been fortified, because this process is also a very spiritual process as well. I get lots of rest, I'm doing bone broth and Gatorade and vitamins and lots and lots of water for hydration. My colleagues are seeing that this is doable, and are now exploring the possibilities of joining in with me on a hunger strike.

I know you're not in the room for the main budget negotiations. But can you give me a sense of what you're hearing about the state of play with the negotiations around bail and discovery?

We're still fighting to keep the "least restrictive means" in our bail laws, because it's not a new standard which was created by the bail reform law—it's a constitutional standard which has been around for decades. The "least restrictive means" language is included in our Department of Health laws. It's also in our education law, as well as family law. So judges are not confused by the terminology. It's a well-settled terminology in the law, and it was voted through in 1967. That's just two years after the Voting Rights Act guaranteed Black people the right to vote.

So the idea that we're trying to undo that standard and go back to something from an earlier time, I think, is part of the type of institutional racism that we were fighting against in the '60s in the civil rights movement. We believed that those conversations were already deliberated and decided, but who knew that in 2023, we will be right back in the same place again. The number one issue in our state budget this year is locking up Black and brown people. The governor is willing to hold up the budget so that she can incarcerate her way out of a political problem.

Who do you think the governor is trying to please with this push? 

I can't speak for her political agenda. But I will say that most of the people who we've heard calling for these changes include members of law enforcement, prosecutors, and Republicans. Most people who support this change to the bail laws are people who live in communities where they will probably never have a crime happen on their block, yet they are crying out their fear of public safety.

We want to be safe as well. We want to raise our children in healthy environments. But one of the things that we know is that the safest communities have the most resources and the least amount of police officers. When you drain our communities of essential services, such as housing, access to quality education, access to quality health care, access to fresh food, then you put people in a position of poverty, where survival becomes the guiding light. And then you blame the very same people for trying to create opportunities to eat. If you're complaining about people going into a Rite Aid and stealing toothpaste, make it so that people can just purchase toothpaste! This is a criminalization of poverty, even more so than ever before. 

The governor's proposal takes bail to a place it's never been in the state of New York. Bail has always been about ensuring a return to court. In the past, judges were trying to find their way around the return-to-court standard as a way to remand individuals. Now, the governor has given a green light for judges to lock people up for any reason or no reason at all. For this governor to say that she believes in the tenets of bail reform, but to do something like this, is complete hypocrisy.

And now this week, the governor has thrown in rollbacks to discovery reform as well.

Yes. When we enacted bail reform, it didn't travel by itself. It also came alongside discovery reform and speedy trial. When most people are held on bail, they have repeated adjournments of their court dates, because the NYPD or the prosecutors are not turning over evidence either to each other, or to defense counsel. This requires court appearance after court appearance after court appearance, and it could end up where someone is waiting three years, as in the case of Kalief Browder.

We addressed that, but now there is a proposal on the table that will require defense counsel to have to file a motion to say that evidence that the prosecutor has, which somehow the defense has to know about, hasn't been turned over, and if you don't notify the prosecutor about it by the deadline, then you waive your right to the evidence. 

So now, not only are you saying to folk, with this budget, that we are going to incarcerate you pretrial, but in addition to that, we're tacking on more time that you'll have to be waiting on Rikers Island for your trial. Thirty-six people died on Rikers Island within the past two years. When we visited Rikers Island the other day, we saw people who were being denied medical treatment, people yelling and screaming for help. I wanted to visit someone in the [North Infirmary Command, a medical jail facility on Rikers], but we were told it was locked down in the morning for a sweep, and then later in the day there was a fire. So that's the place this budget is saying people need to spend more time.

So this is maybe a tricky question for you to answer, but I've watched you in this fight over the last several years, and I have to think it's been incredibly dispiriting and frustrating for you to see, in successive years, wave after wave of attacks on this legislation and to have your own party leadership roll over, more than once. How does that make you feel? And what kind of confidence do you have in your leadership that the story isn't going to repeat itself yet again?

I have all confidence in our leadership, because it was the very same leadership that enacted the legislation in the first place. At the end of the day, the Democratic Party is not monolithic. Leadership has to listen to the wishes of many different members who come from various lived experiences, whose districts are as different as a day is long, and they have to manage all of that, even when it hurts them to do so, because remember, getting this legislation passed was a part of their legacy. So I think about how they must feel, sitting in this room and having to negotiate, sometimes against their own interests. We know that if they were not in the room, these rollbacks would have gone much further than they did. 

On a personal level, I have to look my community in the face, each and every time, and say that I tried my hardest, that I did my best, that I did everything it is I could do in order to prevent this from happening, including making a sacrifice of my own body for this issue, for justice, for fairness, for integrity.

It is disheartening, a great deal, because I believe in the Democratic Party, I believe in our strength, and when we allow politics to override what people need in their lives, that's going backwards. Because what the Constitution promises wasn't always promised to a Black woman. The 13th Amendment indicates that slavery was abolished, except in the case of criminal punishment. That means that 400-plus years of slavery in America still exists today.

The one thing that separates someone who's free from someone who's a slave, in the truest 1619 sense of slavery, is whether or not they're subjected to the criminal justice system. And the gateway to that system is bail, because that's the first thing that happens in this process to get you into slavery. It's almost like the auction block, which is also all about money. So this is an abolitionist movement. Harriet Tubman said that she could have freed so many more slaves if they had known they were slaves, and I believe that if people knew the real story behind why we're here, there would be a lot more of us in this fight. 

But I also know that it may have taken us 400-plus years to get here, and those small freedoms that we were able to achieve, it's now going to take an eternity for us to protect. So I'll keep fighting. I'm not done yet. There's still more to our story in the struggle.

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