Michael Thomas and Antoine Bethea ask the same question after every community event: “What more can I do?”
The veteran safeties are never satisfied with just throwing on a jersey, shaking hands and smiling for a photo opportunity. Neither are the Giants.
Over the past year, the organization teamed up with the Vera Institute of Justice, which works closely with communities, advocates and government stakeholders to build and improve justice systems. During that time, they have traveled together to different parts of the region to explore three major themes. Most recently, they visited Upstate New York this past May to witness the shifting geography of incarceration and learn about a special program to get people back on track by obtaining college degrees.
“You’ve just got to keep applying the pressure,” Thomas said. “I think the fact that we have a partnership with Vera and that we have people in the Giants organization that are willing to help us bring awareness to these issues, if we can amplify the people in Upstate New York, their voices, and amplify the program that they have going, I think that would be huge.”
The three-part initiative began in the summer of 2018 with the Camden County (N.J.) Police Department, which serves as a model because of its community policing and de-escalation efforts. Then last fall, Thomas and fellow defensive backs Antonio Hamilton and Ronald Zamort spent their off-day learning about pre-trial justice and the bail process with The Bronx Defenders, a public defender non-profit organization aimed at transforming how low-income people are represented in the justice system.
On the overnight trip Upstate, Thomas was joined by Bethea, a 14-year NFL veteran who signed with the Giants over the offseason. The three-time Pro Bowl safety and Super Bowl champion relished the chance to dive in and get to know his new community.
“As an athlete, we have a spectacular platform,” said Bethea, a native of Newport News, Virginia. “That platform isn’t really just to play football on Sundays. It’s to impact, to get out in the community, touch the people that look up to you. I just thought it was very important to me to take this trip and also this is an issue that I hold close to my heart because I have had a lot of close friends go through these same situations. So if it’s something that I can take from this trip and take home and try to implement in my community, I would love to do that.”
The first day began with a public forum at the United Presbyterian Church in Binghamton, where they heard from community members directly impacted by the criminal justice system in Broome County, NY.
“Just hearing their different stories of how they’ve been affected from their family going through the justice system, themselves going through the justice system, it was real,” Thomas said. “And it was like, ‘What more can I do to try to help empower them, use my voice and my platform to bring resources to them?’ They’ve really appreciated that. They appreciated Vera being there, being able to give them tools and resources that they can use to either help get family members out of prison or find help they needed. That was a powerful event.”
“It set the tone,” Bethea said. “Hearing different stories from different people who were incarcerated, hearing stories from family members, and then also hearing concerns from people in the community and being one of the newest members of the New York Giants and just getting here and being able to use my platform in any, way, shape or form to be able to help them, it was inspiring.”
In 1991, New York City held almost twice as many people in jail on any given day than the rest of the state—over 20,000, compared to 11,000 across upstate New York. But, according to Vera, since then the number of people in New York City’s five boroughs dropped almost 60 percent, while incarceration in the rest of New York State increased 22 percent.
“It’s crazy how you can be right there in the thick of it – it’s right there in plain sight – but you’re oblivious to it,” Thomas said. “We all, unless it’s affecting us in our daily lives, can be a victim to that. But if players like myself, AB, anybody, can take our platform and amplify some of these issues that are going on and raise awareness, then that’s our role.”
That’s where Vera came into the picture. The next day, members of their team brought the Giants to the Broome County Courthouse to see arraignments firsthand, learn how bail is set, and speak with judges and public defenders at the courthouse.
New York State passed sweeping bail reform this year, which when it becomes effective on January 1, 2020, will eliminate the use of money bail and pretrial detention for nearly all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. When bail is set, judges will now be required to consider a person’s ability to pay. According to Vera, in Broome County, an average of 76 percent of people in the jail on any given day are being held pretrial, meaning that they are behind bars while still legally presumed innocent, awaiting the resolution of their case because they cannot afford to pay bail.
Safeties Michael Thomas and Antoine Bethea visited Upstate New York this past May to learn about the shifting geography of incarceration.
“When the Giants came to us at Vera and said, ‘We want to understand mass incarceration, we want to understand how we can help with criminal justice reform,’ what we knew we needed to do was show them what the criminal justice system looks like,” said Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives at Vera. “And the truth is the justice system is huge. It’s 2.2 million Americans behind bars on any given day, yet people don’t see it because it’s out of sight and out of mind.
“In having the Giants, having the players come up with us to Binghamton and to Ithaca, we wanted them to see the courts and the jail, we wanted them to hear from community members who have been directly impacted by the justice system. That’s why we created the itinerary that we did. … We think all of that is actually taking this big system that is so hidden and making it present and proximate for all of us.”
From Binghamton, the team drove 50 miles northeast to Ithaca, where they toured the Tompkins County Jail and held a question-and-answer session with Sheriff Derek Osborne, Chair of the Public Safety Committee Rich John, and Captain Ray Bunce.
“The fact that that specific jail, they actually believe in de-carceration, they actually believe that they shouldn’t be having people just housed in the jail system and trying to build bigger jails, that’s huge,” Thomas said. “They’re actually trying to get people back home, like actually trying to find alternatives to people being in jail, which was actually a shocker to me. I was not expecting that. I was not expecting that, but it’s great to see that there is a county out here.”
The day ended with a powerful and inspiring event with College Initiative Upstate, which works with students who have had involvement with the criminal justice system. Through a network of educators, students, and volunteers from Tompkins County, the program provides opportunities, alternatives and resources (OAR) to help end the cycle of poverty and incarceration. In its first three years, the program has provided college preparation, enrollment help, pre- and post-release counseling and ongoing support to more than 100 students. Higher education has been proven to reduce recidivism while transforming lives and building stronger communities.
“It’s so important for the Giants to be part of this effort to reform criminal justice in New York because they are New York’s home team,” Rahman said. “They are our players, and many of us who are huge Giants fans, we follow them, we put our hearts, our hopes, our optimism in what they do, and it’s remarkable then to see this team give back to our communities and say we care about the issues that impact you. That’s what’s so powerful about having the players come up and go all across New York, not just New York City, which is where everybody goes for the media moment.”
Rahman added: “Mike and Antoine know a ton about this system. It’s very clear from their lives, from their communities, from how they were raised and what they were thinking about, that these issues are not foreign to them. They know them deeply. They feel deeply about them. What’s remarkable to us is that they’re willing to use their platform as players, as people who are public figures, to say we’re going to take a stand, we need this system to change and we’re going to part of that change.”
Such change is an ongoing journey.
“For me, it was important to come on this trip to Upstate New York to show the people in this county, who are huge Giants fans, that we do care about their causes and what they have going on,” Thomas said. “And right now it is trying to attack their opioid problems, trying to attack their bail system, and for me ever since I’ve been involved with the social justice movement as an athlete getting involved with that, I’ve just always wanted to do more. How can I keep learning new ways to get involved and not just post about something on social media or show up to an event? It’s like, nah, I really want to get involved. I really want to help end bail system, or if not, put a little pressure that they enforce these new laws and rules that are coming out.”
While visiting Binghamton, the Giants held an NFL Play 60 event at East Middle School.