At all five criminal courthouses across New York City, public defenders and decarceration activists protested the mounting death toll at Rikers and called on judges to halt the flow of people into New York City jails.

Since the start of the year, twelve people incarcerated in city jails have passed away amidst escalating violence, self-harm, and cases of COVID-19. To protest their deaths, defense attorneys read their names into the court record as they appeared in front of arraignment court judges, and held minutes of silence with protesters outside.

“Sending any person, any friend, neighbor, father, mother, son, brother, to jail right now is a potential death sentence, and we demand that it stop,” said Amanda Jack, a public defender and activist with the Five Borough Defenders coalition, which helped lead a protest outside of the Manhattan criminal court.

“There are men right now, laying on top of each other like rats, laying in their own feces, and urine,” said Jon McFarlane, an activist with VOCAL-NY, a criminal justice reform organization. “And the city’s excuse is, ‘Well, corrections officers, we don’t have enough of them.’”

The protests follow new reporting from Gothamist/WNYC and New York Focus that examines data showing which judges in New York City set bail and detain people as they await their trials most frequently.

Jack, the public defender, specifically criticized one of those top judges, Herbert Moses, a Manhattan jurist who was overseeing arraignments on the day of the demonstration.

“Right now in AR-1, Judge Herbert Moses is setting bail because the District Attorney Cyrus Vance and his assistants are requesting it,” Jack told protesters, referring to the judge’s courtroom.

According to state court data, Moses set bail or detained defendants in two-thirds of the bail-eligible cases he saw in 2020, the third highest rate of any judge across all five boroughs who saw at least fifty cases. In two-thirds of the citywide cases analyzed by Gothamist/WNYC and New York Focus where judges imposed bail, defendants remained in jail for at least a week.

Court records show Moses set a $5,000 bond and $2,000 cash bail for a 56-year-old man, who appeared in arraignment court for robbery charges on Monday. According to Jack, the defendant is currently receiving treatment for cancer. In recent weeks, COVID-19 has surged back into city jails, worrying health staff in jails who’ve struggled to get detainees medicine and to doctors’ visits as corrections officers have not shown up for work en masse.

Moses did not immediately respond to requests for comment left with a clerk. In a statement, Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the courts, said that judges have the discretion to set bail when, in their estimation, the charges warrant it.

“Not agreeing with a bail decision by a criminal court judge, or any judge, doesn’t make that decision illegal or immoral,” he said.

As of Friday, there were more than 5,700 people incarcerated in New York City jails. Nearly 80% of them are waiting for trial.

George Joseph is a reporter with the WNYC/Gothamist Race & Justice Unit. You can send him tips on Facebook, Twitter @georgejoseph94, Instagram @georgejoseph81, and at His phone and encrypted Signal app number is 929-486-4865.