At a tele-conference last Wednesday, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Councilman Brad Lander called on the mayor, governor and city’s district attorneys to halt arrests for quality of life crimes, fare evasion and similar enforcement policies.
They also want the NYPD to cease executing summons and bench warrants for outstanding minor offenses.
Their request came after a corrections officer working on Rikers Island tested positive for the virus. Later that day, an inmate at Rikers contracted the novel coronavirus. One of the city’s first COVID-19 deaths was an investigator who worked in the jail.
“It makes no sense to put more people in the system,” Williams said.
The Brooklyn pols called on Cuomo and the state Department of Corrections to stop the incarceration of people on parole for technical violations.
They also asked for an immediate release of incarcerated people over the age of 50, pregnant women, people with respiratory conditions, and those who are immunocompromised or have other chronic health conditions.
“They may be hit the hardest,” Williams said.
Another ask was for state lawmakers to put an end to conversations about changing the bail reform laws, which they said would only add more people to city jails.
“We have a responsibility to shrink the jail population,” Lander said. “If we fail to do so, the deaths are on our hands, and no amount of soap will wish that away.”
He noted that there are currently over 900 people held on Rikers Island over the age of 50. At least two-thirds have chronic medical conditions.
Three-hundred people are on parole warrants, which could be vacated by the governor, Lander said. Two-hundred more are held on bail, which could be released by the district attorneys. Seventy-five inmates are being held on a city sentence.
Lander added that as people held on Rikers are let out, there should be additional measures taken to ensure they have a place to stay. A surge in homeless shelter capacity, or hotel rooms, could be necessary, he said.
“We need to care for people as they come out,” he said.
Last Tuesday, advocates from the coalition Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) penned a letter to de Blasio calling for a moratorium on all police enforcement of low-level and quality-of-life offenses.
They also requested a stop to crackdowns against immigrant delivery workers, street vendors and those perceived to be sex workers.
“This is the time to suspend these police tactics,” said Kesi Foster, a lead organizer for Make the Road New York.
Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of Brooklyn Movement Center and a member of CPR, said the NYPD’s increased budget in items like youth initiatives, homeless outreach and mental health services should be placed elsewhere.
Instead, the funding should go toward emergency housing, public health equipment and other necessary programs to address the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Michael Sisitsky, senior policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said even desk appearance tickets (DATs) require custodial arrests, meaning more contact between the public and the NYPD, which he said is not good for public health right now.
“We should be actively putting a pause on summonses, DATs and other enforcement,” he said.
Sisitsky added that the city should be looking at non-carceral options to mitigate current health concerns, especially because a summons could have detrimental effects on someone’s life.
“Those low-level, quality-of-life offenses do nothing for public safety,” he said.
In a statement, Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, said that lawmakers must consider the well-being of vulnerable people impacted by incarceration.
“COVID-19 poses a serious risk to incarcerated people, staff and all New Yorkers, and it now seems imminent that this virus will spread throughout Rikers,” she said. “Because of high rates of ‘churning’ in jails, or the movement of people in and out of facilities, any outbreak at Rikers will inevitably reverberate out into the community.”
Schreibersdorf noted that jails are “uniquely poor environments” for stopping or containing viral outbreaks, especially during a global pandemic.
“We must immediately release those in jails and prisons who are at risk of serious health complications from the virus,” she added, “and do everything possible to stop new jail admissions.”