EAST HARLEM—City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito laid out an ambitious agenda focused on equality in her first State of the City address in East Harlem Wednesday, calling for $25 million to repair NYCHA buildings, local control over the minimum wage and a city-wide bail system to keep poor people accused of minor crimes from languishing in jail for weeks.
In addition to calling for 1,000 new police officers to focus on community policing, Mark Viverito also called for police to issue more summonses and desk appearance tickets in lieu of arrests for low-level offenses and announced plans to revitalize the Human Rights Commission and create a new Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator to make sure New Yorkers can obtain representation in civil cases.
The proposals were part of a larger call for reform of “systemic issues" in criminal justice, human rights and civil justice.
"For too long, many voices in New York have been marginalized, drowned out or forgotten," said Mark-Viverito who peppered her speech with Spanish.
The $25 million for repairs at NYCHA buildings will be used for "critical improvements" such as heating, plumbing and roofing repairs. The funds, on top of $225 million the city is committing in capital funds, will be given first to NYCHA developments with the most open work orders.
"By getting funding to the buildings with the most open work orders, we can tackle the underlying conditions like leaky roofs that can lead to mold and peeling paint, or heating systems that falter on days like today, leaving residents literally out in the cold," said Mark-Viverito.
The speech comes after some criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for not talking about police and community relations, a hot issue during his first year as mayor, during his recent State of the City address.
Mark-Viverito made the public's interaction with police a focal point of her speech.
“We need to take a comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform that ensures a fairer system, improves police community relations and addresses the fact that far too many of our young people—mostly low-income black and Latino males— are locked up at Rikers," said Mark-Viverito.
That includes reducing the number of arrests for low-level offenses. Instead, police should issue summonses and desk appearance tickets.
Certain low-level crimes should not be subject to criminal prosecution, said Mark-Viverito.
"We will also look for areas where it makes more sense to impose a civil penalty rather than a criminal one," she added.
In order to enact this system of fewer arrests, Mark-Viverito said the city's summonses courts, already overburdened, need to be improved along with a better notification and communication system with defendants.
A city-wide bail system would also help to reduce unfairness in the system when people are arrested for less serious crimes, said Mark-Viverito.
"If you are accused of jumping a turnstile or committing other minor offenses in New York City, you may be locked up. And if you can’t afford bail you will spend on average 15 days in jail," said Mark Viverito.
Other city-wide bail prototypes have a return appearance rate in the 90th percentile, said Mark-Viverito, and would save the city millions of dollars spent holding individuals charged with minor offenses.
While she called on police to make less arrests for minor offenses, Mark-Viverito also called for more police "to carry out more community policing."
Police Commissioner William Bratton has called for more police but at his budget briefing on Monday Mayor Bill de Blasio was non-committal.
The speaker also called for creating and boosting three offices to help level the playing field for New Yorkers.
A new Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator will ensure that New Yorkers have legal representation when it comes to everything from fighting eviction to dealing with debt collectors.
The office's “job will be simple: work to ensure legal representation is available to all," said Mark-Viverito.
Another major proposal will be to rejuvenate the Human Rights Commission, an agency that has seen its funding cut 80 percent and staffing reduced 90 percent since the 1990s, according to the speaker's office.
The agency enforces the city's human rights law which prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on race, sex, gender, country of origin and gender identity among other things.
Mark-Viverito proposed to spend $5 million to double the number of attorneys and human rights specialists.
New York City should also fight to wrest control over the minimum wage from the state, seek permission to enforce state wage labor laws and enact paid family leave through an expansion of the state’s temporary disability insurance program.
The new Office of Labor will help enforce those regulations.
The speech marks the end to a busy first year for Mark-Viverito who has billed herself as a progressive and inclusive council speaker who has pushed legislation on everything from immigration to sick leave and climate change.
She noted that she is the first speaker to hold the State of the City address outside of Lower Manhattan and at a public housing complex, the James Weldon Johnson Center at Johnson Houses in the East Harlem district she represents.
"It is time to make sure all voices have a seat at the table," said Mark-Viverito.