New York lawmakers are considering criminal justice reforms to improve transparency of county jails throughout the state before session ends next month.

Legislation to improve the oversight of local jails and protections for incarcerated people in those county facilities advanced through the state Senate Crime Victims, Crime & Correction Committee last week, giving supports hope it could clear both houses of the Legislature before June 6. 

"This is an example of a bill that is not controversial, I think, because it's good for us to have more oversight in correctional facilities," sponsor Sen. Julia Salazar said. "Generally, legislators feel that way across the political spectrum."

State lawmakers said county jails throughout the state need better accountability, supervision and human rights protections. They recently rallied in Albany to increase the number of people on the state Commission of Correction from three to nine members to improve oversight of abuse in local jails.

Salazar argues the current commission is ineffective and her bill would require a formerly incarcerated person to be part of the entity to improve jail conditions.

"Rather than the commission just consisting, for example, of former law enforcement, the commission would have people who specialize in behavorial health, have a background in prisoners' legal services," the senator explained.

Rozann Greco, an advocate from the Southern Tier, said New York jails lack active oversight, citing three active lawsuits against the Broome County jail that accuse correction staff of unpaid labor, medical and health violations and sexual and racial abuse.

"The continuing problem: There is no active oversight as this latest lawsuit shows us yet once again," Greco said.

Alisha Kohn, a formerly incarcerated transgender woman from Poughkeepsie, said she was raped five times while held in local all-male facilities, and is why the commission must be expanded.

"Our human rights deserve to be recognized; our voices deserve to be inside of this place to say 'no, enough is enough, we need protections,' " said Kohn, co-founder of The Prisoner Brain Trust.

Advocates are also pushing for a bill to allow state and local lawmakers full access to local jails as is allowed at state prisons.

Sponsor state Sen. Robert Jackson said he was inspired to draft the legislation after his staff was barred from visiting Rikers Island with him. The policy change would improve monitoring of county jails.

"Exclusion from local correctional facilities not only hinders their ability to serve, but also creates a disparity between oversight of the state and local institutions," said Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat.

But it's more difficult for significant criminal justice measures to clear both houses of the Legislature in a critical election year.

It's unclear how bold Gov. Kathy Hochul and lawmakers will be with criminal justice reforms ahead of elections — especially as public safety remains a top concern for New York voters.

Assembly Correction Committee ranking member Republican Joe Giglio said the number of civil lawsuits against local jails shows the Commission on Correction does its job, and does not need to be expanded.

"The commission does their job exactly the way the constitution asks them to," Giglio said. "I think they're reaching when they try to go into that system and change it for stuff that they want — not that's needed."