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Courts, Prison System Biased Against Poor & People of Color, say CNY Community Groups

Scott Willis/WAER News

Advocates for criminal justice reform in Onondaga County want the system to be more fair. They’re concerned with how people of color and people without resources are treated.  When people are a waiting trial, Retired judge Langston McKinney says many find themselves locked up unnecessarily.  He argues judges don’t always understand bail. 

“Frequently, a person’s promise is sufficient.  And sometimes a slap on the wrist or a general reminder, ‘o.k., you have to adhere to your promise to come to court when you’re supposed to otherwise you’re going to be in jail.  And they’ll bring you to court or you can come on your own.  You just come when you’re supposed to.””

In McKinney’s experience, most people hold their promise to appear in court or face consequences.  However, he says that the issue isn’t just about race and economic status. Still, he argues that people at the bottom bear the burden of everyone above them.

“The system is, I can’t say ‘rigged’, but let’s say the playing field is not even for whatever reason.  But if you take a look at the detention facility and if you take a look at the makeup of the people who are arrested, being held pending the outcome of their cases, there tends to be more people of color and definitely more poor people.”

Advocates argue that the odds are also stacked against the poor once they go to trial.  Marsha Weissman with the Center for Community Alternatives warns people with public defenders can’t always participate in their defense to uncover evidence.  She says this is not just a New York state issue.

“There are so many loopholes in discovery right now that it’s common for the defense either not to get information or to get information so late that they cannot properly represent their client.”

Weissman says people who can’t make bail are more likely to be convicted, or plead guilty unnecessarily.   Herve Comeau with the Volunteer Lawyers Project adds higher convictions for poor people show a distinct prejudice against people of color. 

“Although there’s supposed to be a presumption of innocence, it keeps happening over and over again.  We need to talk a lot more about implicit bias and we need to challenge ourselves.  We take for granted that this is the best system in the world, that this is the best that we can do.  And I think that we can do better.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed eliminating monetary bail for suspects in non-violent crimes....and improving the sharing of evidence before trial.

Judge McKinney expands on how bail can work in a case, as well as the impacts it has on outcomes of cases.

A forum, "Guilty Until Proven Innocent: New York's Injustice System" took place this week, sponsored by:

  • NYCLU,
  • Center for Community Alternatives,
  • JustLeadershipUSA,
  • Katal,
  • ACTS,
  • NAN,
  • NAACP,
  • William Herbert Johnson Minority Bar Association,
  • Black Law Students Association of Syracuse University College of Law (BLSA),
  • Hiscock Legal Aid,
  • Syracuse Peace Council,
  • Legal Services of Central NY,
  • CNY Solidarity Coalition.
Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.