Citing the ongoing chaos and continuing fatalities on Rikers Island, two of New York City’s House members, Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are calling on local district attorneys to seek lower bails and empty city jails.
“We have grave concerns that excessive bail amounts are leading to unnecessary pretrial detention and contributing to a humanitarian crisis in New York City’s jail system, particularly on Rikers Island,” the representatives noted in separate letters submitted to all five New York City district attorneys on Monday.
Currently, more than 4,400 people are being held on Rikers Island and in other city jails pre-trial, mostly due to bails they are unable to post. So far this year, 14 people incarcerated in city jails have died. The ongoing fatalities have prompted advocates to criticize bail amounts sought by prosecutors and approved by judges.
In addition to calling for more lenient bail practices, Maloney and Ocasio-Cortez along with Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland asked all district attorneys to consent to the release of all detainees accused of misdemeanors or non-violent felonies as well as those facing “significant health risks due to the coronavirus.”
“Condemning thousands of individuals to languish in an environment plagued by persistent overcrowding and mounting violence as they await trial is not acceptable and risks violating the federal civil rights of these individuals,” the letter from Maloney, Ocasio-Cortez, and Raskin said. “If these conditions are not addressed, federal intervention may be necessary to protect detainees from additional harm.”
According to city numbers, more than a thousand incarcerated people, about twenty percent of the city’s jail population, are being held in jail for misdemeanors and non-violent felony accusations.
Representatives for the city’s five district attorneys were contacted for comment.
A spokesperson for Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz's office said, "For months now, Queens ADAs have been instructed to review cases to determine if remedial action can be taken to effectuate a defendant’s release from Rikers without jeopardizing public safety. This includes circumstances where a case may be advanced so that defendants can be sentenced or take a plea that results in a transfer to state prison, time already served, or other alternatives. Criminal justice reform legislation passed last year in New York State, which the DA supports, makes most non-violent crimes ineligible for bail. We continue to consider the least restrictive means that will ensure a defendant’s return to court, including supervised release and other options."
The Richmond County District Attorney's office is reviewing the letter, according to a spokesperson.
“Our policy is to limit bail requests to cases involving violent and repeat offenders, but given the the Covid emergency and the humanitarian crisis in Rikers, we have been reviewing all cases of detained individuals to identify those who could be safely released,” a spokesperson for the the Brooklyn Attorney‘s office said. “As a result of those reviews, and our work with defense attorneys and community-based organizations to insure that anyone released would be adequately supervised, several hundred individuals were released in 2020 and 2021. We are happy to brief lawmakers on these efforts.”
This story will be updated with any comments from the district attorneys.