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Lippman Commission on Rikers Island makes recommendations for mitigating impact of bail rollbacks

May 26, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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When the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, also known as the Lippman Commission after former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who chairs the Commission, initially published its report that Rikers Island should be shut down, bail reform was one of the major tools that was said to be necessary if Rikers was ever actually going to be closed.

The result of that report was to galvanize action not only around closing Rikers, but it also built momentum for ending cash bail. Eventually the New York State legislature did just that, or at least in most cases that did not include violence.

However, almost immediately after bail reform was passed, Republican lawmakers and prosecutors, and some progressives like Mayor Bill de Blasio, began to claim that bail reform was putting the public in danger, and eventually the law was amended so that more people suspected of crimes would be jailed before trial using bail.

On Thursday, the Lippman Commission issued a report saying that it is hoping to find a happy balance by outlining strategies that would guide judicial discretion so that fewer people are incarcerated before trial, while still keeping communities safe.

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“The COVID-19 crisis has only created more urgency to shut down the Rikers jails, and we are closer than ever to actually doing so,” said Judge Lippman. “In response to the pandemic, the jail population has been reduced below 4,000, mostly through smart decisions to release many people serving short jail sentences and accused of non-criminal parole violations, with safeguards and services to protect public safety.”

The five major steps recommended in the report include: district attorneys should ask for cash bail, and courts should grant it only when absolutely required to ensure a person’s return to court; courts and DAs should work together to increase the use of supervised release instead of cash bail; the city should bolster pretrial release services, including housing; the courts should implement an ability-to-pay assessment for cases where judges consider cash bail; and New York State legislators should expand the capacity to post charitable bail.

The report also suggested that legislators pass the Less is More Act to limit parole incarceration. It noted that nearly 30 percent of the city’s jail population were held due to state parole warrants and explained that the act would reform parole supervision and could reduce the Rikers population by as many as 750 people.

Finally, the report suggested that the city and courts find ways to end case delays. Felony cases take a median of 424 days to reach deposition, which is 50 percent longer than the 57 non-New York City counties in the state, according to the report. It noted that with the drop in crime over the years, there are fewer cases, and that prosecutors, courts, and defense attorneys should take steps to speed up the process to reflect that decline.

“While recent legislative changes will give judges more discretion to set bail, there are many policies and programs that can ensure that jail is used as sparingly as possible,” said Judge Lippman. “Additionally, the needless incarceration of those accused of committing technical violations of parole — something that can be addressed through state passage of the Less is More Act — and the bureaucratic delays that result in people languishing in jails must stop.

“This is a time of great difficulty and pain across the city, but it is not the time to turn back on our commitment to a better future,” Lippman concluded.

The recent rollbacks to bail reform included allowing judges to set bail for people charged with some offenses that were previously ineligible for cash bail or pretrial detention. They also let judges set bail for people accused of a felony while on probation or parole; people with two prior felony convictions; people accused of a new felony or Class A misdemeanor involving harm to a person or property while released on a previous alleged felony or Class A charge; and people convicted of non-bail eligible offenses while they await sentencing for another crime.

The Lippman Commission was created by former NYC City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito following a federal investigation that said that Rikers Island had a “deep-seated culture of violence” among staffers, and that the structure of the buildings themselves allowed for systematic violations of the civil rights of the people it was supposed to protect.

In April 2017, the Commission released a report entitled, “A More Just New York City,” that recommended closing the jail and replacing it with five smaller borough-based jails.

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