Criminal justice advocates gearing up for sentencing reform push in Albany

ALBANY — Criminal justice reformers are preparing to push Gov. Hochul and state lawmakers to overhaul New York’s sentencing laws during the upcoming legislative session.

Advocates, lawmakers and impacted families plan on holding seven rallies across the state on Wednesday in support of a package of bills that would eliminate mandatory-minimum sentencing, allow incarcerated people to petition for resentencing and encourage rehabilitation through the expansion of “good time” and “merit time” laws.

Sharon Adams, whose brother Eon Shepherd has been locked up since 1994 on robbery charges, said the changes are about making the justice system more equitable for all.

“He’s served his time. He shouldn’t still be in there for 28 years for a nonviolent crime,” Adams said. “There are people who have done a lot worse, and they’re in and out. I’m just begging for fairness.”

Shepherd was 26 when he accepted a plea thinking he would serve a year or two behind bars, but New York’s mandatory-minimum sentencing laws have kept him in prison for nearly three decades.

Advocates point out that 98% of convictions in the state are the result of plea deals and a majority of the nearly 30,000 people behind bars are Black or Latino.

A relic of the 1970s Rockefeller drug laws, mandatory-minimum sentences transfer power from judges to prosecutors and give them leverage in plea negotiations.

One of the bill’s advocates with the “Communities Not Cages” coalition support would do away with mandatory-minimum sentences for prison, jail and probation, and end New York’s two- and three-strike laws, which require lengthy periods of incarceration based on prior convictions.

The second bill in the package is dubbed the Second Look Act. It would allow incarcerated people to apply for a resentencing hearing after they have served 10 years or half of their sentence, if more than a decade.

The third measure, the Earned Time Act, would significantly increase the ability of incarcerated people to shave time off of a sentence through prison programs, college credits and other means.

Democrats, who faced intense criticism over bail and other criminal justice reforms in recent years, will retain control of the Legislature when lawmakers return to Albany in January.

Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), the lead sponsor of the Second Look Act, said with the recent election in the rearview Dems should move forward and embrace the additional reforms.

“These bills have widespread support and are backed by decades of evidence as effective policy,” Salazar said. “There is no time to waste in reforming New York’s unjust and outdated sentencing laws.

The coalition behind the push includes the Center for Community Alternatives, New York Communities for Change, several labor unions and groups such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change and Human Rights Watch.

Adams, who has joined the advocacy efforts of the Brooklyn-based Center for Community Alternatives, said she hopes the sentencing overhauls will be a priority during the legislative session.

“It’s not just about my brother, it’s for all the families affected,” she said. “I love my brother, I want to see my brother out, but the injustice is just not right and there’s people in prison that just don’t have a voice.”