By the Citizen Action of New York Hudson Valley Chapter’s Demand Justice Committee

Millions of people are letting their voices be heard. The decades of state sanctioned violence against Black and Brown people will no longer be accepted. It has been exciting to see so many people answer the call of the Movement for Black Lives and demand police accountability, while pushing our elected officials to reassess inflated law enforcement budgets and to transform public safety as we know it. At Citizen Action, we have been calling to repair the deep harm done to communities by making meaningful investments in education, housing, jobs, health care and youth services for years. We cannot say Black Lives Matter, but send children to substandard schools, failing to invest in the communities they live in. If Black Lives Matter, we must look at the budgets at all levels to understand what we are really prioritizing as a community.

Last week, Ulster County Comptroller March Gallagher released an Audit and Snapshot of Ulster County Sheriff’s Corrections Division. This report is helping to give shape to the conversation locally on shifting resources away from police and incarceration and into the programs and services that build thriving communities. For years, budgets of law enforcement and corrections have increased even as cuts to mental health, health care, education, and food security have persisted. The County Comptroller’s new analysis backs up what activists have known for a long time, and matches what is being found in many other municipalities and counties across the state and country — you simply do not need as much in the budget of the Ulster County jail facility, simply based on the numbers. We commend Comptroller Gallagher for her well-timed report to inform this critical community conversation.

In his role, Ulster County Sheriff Figueroa has also shown a commitment to the forms of community investment we’re calling for. He has implemented the four-phase ORACLE program (Opioid Response As County Law Enforcement), which includes mental health, education and job training and placement supports. The program also includes a restorative justice component, the “first chance initiative,” which provides job training and counseling services for people who have committed first time offenses.

It will take a combination of strategies to create true public safety in Ulster County and to lead in the work of transforming the justice system. One of those strategies must be to examine Ulster County’s budget. The next Ulster County budget must represent the values of the people of our county, and reflect the need to make continued investments in community-based solutions that restore relationships, heal trauma, and break cycles of endless punishment.

We need to tax billionaires too. Our local budgets are feeling the pressure of the economic recession and our local elected officials should be joining us in shouting from the rooftops to tax the rich at the state level. Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers must return to Albany immediately to up taxes on the super wealthy and corporations who have raked in record-breaking profits during this pandemic.

Our communities are suffering. They need services and support — housing, healthcare, mental health, education, employment — and they don’t need those services once they get caught up in the system of incarceration — they need them before. The combination of work happening from community members and leaders, and our leaders in county government can get us there, but only if we all work together to divest from the carceral system, and invest in our communities and restorative justice.

We look for opportunities to create big changes in NY and the US. Our power comes from the grassroots: people coming together to push the edge of the possible.

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