At the age of 24, I was wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to forty years in prison in New York. My journey through the system taught me patience, resilience and perseverance, for a start. It also taught me about the importance of a true democracy where government is accountable to the people. This year in Albany, I urge our leaders to make this aspiration a reality by passing public financing of elections and automatic voter registration. These critical reforms cannot wait.
Elections matter deeply for people like me. For one thing, judges and district attorneys are elected officials who have enormous power over outcomes in the criminal justice system. In my case, the decisions made by judges and prosecutors determined my fate for the 22 years I was wrongfully imprisoned, and then for an additional eight years, I spent fighting for compensation.
While incarcerated, I filed petition after petition to have the DNA evidence in my case tested to prove my innocence. The evidence voucher in my files indicated it was being stored in a Queens warehouse, but each time I filed a request for testing it was rejected by a judge, with a letter claiming that the evidence couldn’t be located. It was only when armed with representation from the Innocence Project that a Bronx DA ordered a search of the same warehouse and the evidence was found—it had been there all along.
At every stage, elected officials made decisions–good and bad–that determined my fate. And sadly, I’m hardly alone. In New York State, 254 convictions have been overturned. There are 51,000 people in prisons throughout the state, all of whose lives, just like mine was, are largely in the hands of these elected officials.
Additionally, apart from the decisions carried out in the courtroom, policymakers play a tremendous role in shaping the system. It was New York State lawmakers who passed the now infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws in the 1970’s that instituted mandatory sentences of 15 years to life for drug offenses, including possession of small amounts of marijuana or cocaine.
Enforcement fell disproportionately and unfairly on the black community, setting in motion generations of black men being sent to prison even for something as minor as possessing a joint. And it is New York State lawmakers in 2019 who will decide on reforms to our system of bail and discovery, which for too long have penalized the poor and stood in the way of a fair and informed judicial process.
New York’s antiquated laws have kept thousands of New Yorkers from being able to vote in the elections that determine who these decision makers are. Our system of campaign finance has distorted our democracy even further by creating two different systems of government and of criminal justice: one for the wealthy and well connected, and one for the poor.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s decision not to prosecute Harvey Weinstein, which was made after attorneys for Weinstein donated to the DA’s campaign, resulted in a public outcry. Vance himself requested that Columbia University do a study on political donations to district attorneys and policies that could reduce bias in prosecutorial decision making. One of their top recommendations? Public financing of elections.
We often associate campaign finance reform and voting rights with terms like “good governance” and “civic duty.” Rarely do we use the word justice. And justice will only come when we, the people, have the power to elect and support candidates who will fight for our values. These reforms are about pushing back against the interests of a few and lifting up the interests of many.
They are about bringing our democracy into balance and ensuring our systems—even our system of punishment—are accountable and ethical. These reforms are about creating a government truly by and for all people, by making it easy to cast a vote and hard to buy an election.
After two decades, I finally saw justice. This year, I hope I see democracy.
Alan Newton was wrongfully incarcerated for twenty years before being exonerated by DNA evidence.