Home Breaking News What Responsibility Do Courts Bear for the Crisis at Rikers Island?

What Responsibility Do Courts Bear for the Crisis at Rikers Island?

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What Responsibility Do Courts Bear for the Crisis at Rikers Island?

Last Monday, during morning arraignments in courthouses across New York’s five boroughs, public defenders read into the record the names of a dozen people who have died in city jails this year. In Manhattan criminal court, Amanda Jack, a Legal Aid attorney, recited the names from a wooden lectern, saying something about the circumstances of each death—five of which are being treated as suicides. Eleven occurred at Rikers Island, the four-hundred-acre jail complex in the East River where the majority of the more than fifty-five hundred people in city custody are held. Jack made a plea: she called on the city’s District Attorneys and judges to stop seeking and setting bail amounts that consign defendants who can’t come up with the money to pretrial detention. “As an officer of this court, I am demanding the release of every person who comes before this court in recognition of their risk of death and serious harm in city jails,” she said. “Sending a person to any city jail is a potential death sentence.”

An arraignment is a defendant’s first appearance before a judge. By law, in New York, the question at the center of an arraignment is not whether the accused is a danger to society but whether he is likely to attend his trial. A judge’s job is to determine the “least restrictive” means of insuring this future attendance. In cases involving certain serious felony or misdemeanor charges, the judge can decide to set bail, after considering factors that include the strength of the case, a previous criminal record, and past failures to appear in court. In the back-and-forth of a courtroom, however, discussion of these factors can sound a lot like an argument about whether a defendant deserves to be locked up. The public defenders’ protest last Monday was an attempt to turn this argument on its head. In calling attention to the recent deaths in the city’s jails, they wanted the court to consider not whether a defendant was a danger to society but whether society was a danger to a defendant.

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In Manhattan criminal court, arraignments are heard seven days a week, from eight or nine in the morning until 1 A.M. It’s not unusual for more than fifty cases to come through a single courtroom in a day. This volume necessitates speed. Most arraignments last well under fifteen minutes. It took Jack three minutes to recite her statement. When she was finished, the presiding judge, Herbert Moses, asked to speak with her privately. “Please approach, Ms. Jack,” he said, softly. Jack stepped toward the bench, where she peered up at Moses through plastic dividers that were installed as a social-distancing measure. He shook his head at her. Jack later told me that Moses had asked whether she planned to read the same statement at the start of every arraignment.

Jack returned to the lectern, where her client, Genoly Turner, was waiting. The previous day, Turner, who is fifty-six and has been sleeping at a city shelter, had been arrested on the Upper West Side for allegedly stealing bed comforters from a department store and threatening to stab an employee. Michael Gaerman, an Assistant District Attorney, announced that his office was bringing a charge of robbery in the first degree and was seeking five thousand dollars cash bail. “Defendant has five felony and five misdemeanor convictions, as well as one parole revocation, and at least one failure to appear,” Gaerman said. “Many of the defendant’s prior convictions are for robberies, which are similar to this case.”

Jack countered that Turner should be “released on his own recognizance.” No one was hurt at the department store, she pointed out, and police officers found no weapon on Turner when he was arrested. The comforters had been returned. “This is an egregiously overcharged case,” Jack said. “This gentleman is fifty-six years old. Yes, he has a criminal record. He also has a record of coming back to court. The court will notice there is one failure to appear—it is from the year I was born, forty-one years ago, in 1980.”

Moses thought it over. That morning, Gothamist, WNYC, and New York Focus had published a joint report that ranked the city’s judges by how often they set bail. In 2020, Moses had set bail on two out of three bail-eligible defendants who appeared before him—the third-highest rate in the city. “I think the least restrictive means in this matter will be to set some bail,” he announced. “And I’m going to do that.” He set bail at two thousand dollars cash. Turner tilted his head. Without the money, he’d soon be on his way to Rikers. “Just for the record, that is well beyond his financial means,” Jack said. “He will not be able to make that bail.”

“O.K.,” Moses replied.

Officers ushered Turner out of the courtroom. Ten minutes had passed since Jack finished reading her statement.

A decade ago, the average daily jail population in the city was more than twelve thousand. Most of those people—ninety per cent of whom were Black or Hispanic—were being held pretrial at the Rikers complex, where grim conditions, overcrowding, mismanagement, and unchecked violence had been the norm for decades. “When you’re in there, it feels like all the humanity is stripped off everybody,” a city official involved in criminal-justice matters told me. “People living in cages. The sense that violence is just a twitch away from happening. It’s a terrible place.”

After Bill de Blasio took office as Mayor, in 2014, efforts to reform Rikers, pushed in large part by formerly incarcerated activists, gained political momentum. That year, Jennifer Gonnerman’s report in The New Yorker about the case of Kalief Browder—a Black teen-ager who spent three years in pretrial detention on Rikers after being accused of stealing a backpack—helped spur the city to reduce the number of people sent to the island for minor alleged offenses. Two years later, the city courts adopted a supervised-release program, a kind of pretrial parole giving judges an option between bail and release on recognizance. (Remand—the unconditional detention of a defendant pretrial—is rare in New York.) In March, 2017, de Blasio endorsed a ten-year plan to close Rikers for good. The plan was contingent on reducing the city’s total jail population to a point where its detention needs could be met by smaller facilities around town. “This is a very serious, sober, forever decision,” de Blasio said. Eight months later, New Yorkers reëlected him.

At the start of 2020, another reform measure reducing the number of offenses eligible for bail—this one passed by the State Legislature—went into effect, and the city’s daily jail population declined modestly. After the pandemic hit, officials released hundreds of people from city jails, including Rikers, in the name of public health. While the city was on lockdown, crime and arrests both dropped. In April, 2020, the population of incarcerated people on Rikers Island fell below four thousand, the lowest it had been since 1946.

That summer, many of these trends began to reverse. The George Floyd protests, a spike in shootings and murders in the city, and a spate of crimes against Asians and Jews gave critics of bail reform, including the leadership of the New York Police Department, rhetorical ammunition. In July, the State Legislature rolled back some of the bail reforms. Over all, crime in the city was historically low last year. But judges began to set bail in more cases. A recent report on bail reform by the Center for Court Innovation faulted, in part, the “stream of news stories in 2020 inaccurately blaming bail reform for increased shootings and murders in New York City.”

The city’s jail population began to creep back up. In January, a thirty-year-old man named Wilson Diaz-Guzman used a bedsheet to hang himself from a sprinkler head in his cell on Rikers Island. Two more people who were in custody on the island died in March, and another two in April. This summer, as the population at Rikers rose past six thousand, conditions there suddenly deteriorated. A backlog at the complex’s intake facilities, widespread Department of Corrections staff absences, and other issues resulted in hundreds of people spending days in crowded cages with limited access to food and medical attention. Six more people died between June and the end of September, and a seventh died after being found unresponsive at the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a floating jail barge that has been anchored north of Rikers since 1992. “We have witnessed a collapse in basic jail operations,” Ross MacDonald, the chief medical officer for the city jail system, wrote in a letter to the City Council, on September 10th. “The breakdown has resulted in an increase in deaths which we refer to as jail-attributable.”

Two weeks later, a federal monitoring team overseeing operations on Rikers filed a report in court, which found that stabbings and slashings in the complex were up four hundred and fifty per cent. Use of force by guards in the complex’s intake areas—including the use of pepper spray—was up by a hundred and seventy per cent. Meanwhile, COVID-19 infection rates were rising. “We had guys sitting in the pens, waiting for intake, before even being seen for their COVID test,” Rachael Bedard, a geriatrician who works on Rikers Island, told me. “They were getting sprayed all the time. Officers would come and spray, and when that happens, everybody coughs, and all the COVID in everybody’s lungs would absolutely explode onto a hundred other guys.”

Last month, Governor Kathy Hochul issued a disaster-emergency declaration for Rikers and approved the release of some two hundred people who were being held on certain parole violations. De Blasio, whose term ends this winter, ordered the supervised release of seven people being held on short sentences and threatened the corrections officers’ union with legal action. It was unclear whether these steps would make a difference. Public defenders organized their in-court outcry to increase the pressure on District Attorneys and judges, who, as they point out, seek and set the bail that sends most people to Rikers in the first place.

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What Responsibility Do Courts Bear for the Crisis at Rikers Island?