Pols tour Rikers Island as the debate over bail reform continues

April 6, 2023 Robert Abruzzese
Rikers Island complex
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STATEWIDE — State lawmakers held a press conference on Thursday following an unannounced visit to Rikers Island to assess the unsafe and inhumane conditions at the facility.

The legislators arrived at Rikers at 9 a.m., divided into groups to inspect the jail, and then reconvened in Queens to address the press. The visit occurred as Gov. Kathy Hochul pushed for rollbacks on bail reform in ongoing budget negotiations, a move that could led to a significant increase in the number of individuals held at Rikers without a conviction.

Participating elected officials included Senator Jabari Brisport and Assemblymember Latrice Walker as well as Senator Kristen Gonzalez, Senator Nathalia Fernandez, Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes, Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest and Assemblymember Tony Simone.

The officials discussed their findings from the Rikers Island inspection and addressed concerns about the potential impact of Governor Hochul’s proposed bail reform rollbacks on the jail’s conditions.

A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks down a hallway of the jail, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in New York. Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP.

On Wednesday, District Council 37 (DC37), New York City’s largest public employee union representing over 150,000 members and 89,000 retirees, demanded that the State Legislature reject Gov. Hochul’s attempts to rollback bail reforms.

Following DC37’s announcement, the Center for Community Alternatives issued a statement.

“DC37’s members and retirees hail from all corners of New York City, including neighborhoods that have shouldered the brunt of over-policing and mass incarceration,” the statement said. “They know all too well the devastating impact Governor Hochul’s proposal would bear on their communities — separating families and perpetuating cycles of poverty and recidivism — while failing to further public safety.

“Center for Community Alternatives, public defenders, advocates, impacted communities and many others laud DC37 for their definitive rejection of Governor Hochul’s proposal, and we urge Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and legislators to hold the line in defense of this critically important law.”

Legal Aid has also actively campaigned this week against changes to the bail reform laws.

“Governor Kathy Hochul’s hijacking of the budget process to force through rollbacks is not based on merit, but is merely a desperate political attempt to beef up her ‘tough on crime’ bona fides with portions of the electorate,” said the statement issued by The Legal Aid Society.

“This is obvious to anyone with eyes to see. Eliminating the ‘least restrictive’ standard and returning our state to an era where more Black and Latinx New Yorkers are jailed en masse pretrial is a scenario that the Legislature must continue to outright reject. The Chicken-Little narrative on bail reform peddled by politicians and tabloids is not the reality, and lawmakers must adhere to their pledge to focus on the data, not sensationalized rhetoric unrooted in facts.”

Bail is a financial guarantee provided by a defendant, ensuring they will return for their scheduled court appearances. The purpose of bail is to ensure that a defendant, who is presumed innocent until proven guilty, can be released from pretrial detention while still providing an incentive for them to appear in court. Bail is set based on factors such as the nature of the crime, the defendant’s flight risk, and their criminal history.

New York amended its bail laws in 2019, implementing significant bail reform. The changes aimed to reduce the number of people held in pretrial detention, particularly those who could not afford bail.

The reforms eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, ensuring that more people accused of low-level offenses would not be jailed simply because they lacked the financial means to secure their release. The reforms were intended to promote a more just and equitable criminal justice system, as well as reduce the negative impacts of pretrial detention on defendants, their families, and communities.

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