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Public Defenders: Courts Must Take Responsibility for Rikers Crisis

Public Defenders are calling on judges and district attorneys to use their power to prevent New Yorkers from winding up in City jails unnecessarily, as reported by The New Yorker.

In addition to the increasing spread of COVID-19, a mass wave of staff absenteeism has compounded long-standing problems to create an extraordinarily dangerous environment for people who are incarcerated, especially on Rikers Island.

Judges and district attorneys can help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis immediately by not asking for or setting bail. Many cannot afford even a small amount and end up being sent to Rikers pre-trail as a result.

Amanda Jack, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice and member of 5 Boro Defenders, implored those seeking bail to consider the consequences of that action during her opening statement at an arraignment hearing in Manhattan earlier this month.

“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.”

The statement, honoring the 12 people who have died while in DOC Custody this year and demanding the release of all who appeared before the court, was part of a coordinated effort by members of Five Boro defenders and read into the record in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. It was followed by a 12 pm walkout and rally in front of each NYC criminal courthouse. The rallies were joined by members of VOCAL NY, Families for Freedom, CourtWatch NYC, and other impacted community members.

Jack’s client that morning was Genoly Turner, a fifty-six-year-old man who had been living in a homeless shelter. He had been accused of stealing blankets from a department store. No one was hurt in the incident and the blankets were returned. The DA in the case was asking for five thousand dollars bail and the judge set a final amount of two thousand dollars.

“That is well beyond his financial means,” Jack said. “He will not be able to make that bail.”

The case illustrates the critical role judges and prosecutors play in determining the jail population through their bail practices. Mr. Turner would have been sent to Rikers as he was unable to afford that amount.

Thankfully for Mr. Turner, he did not end up in jail, a person in the courtroom agreed to pay his bail, and his charge was later reduced to a non-bail eligible offense.