New York, NY — Today, as the first cases of COVID-19 were identified on Rikers Island, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Council Member Brad Lander held a tele-press conference with Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) and other advocates to call on Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, and New York City’s District Attorneys to suspend broken windows arrests and similar criminal penalty enforcement policies, and to release most people incarcerated at Rikers who are over 50 years old, in order to protect vulnerable New Yorkers from exposure to, and spread of, COVID-19. A recording of the virtual press conference is available here.

This morning, it was revealed that a Corrections Officer working on Rikers Island tested positive for COVID-19. One of the first NYC deaths due to coronavirus was an investigator who works on Rikers. It is only a matter of time before more staff and incarcerated people become sick.

Thousands of New Yorkers are currently detained in overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe conditions in our city’s jails. And thousands more work there. All of them are at greater risk for exposure to and spread of the life-threatening virus. Continued arrests, summonses, warrant enforcement, and parole violations for low-level offenses unnecessarily puts New Yorkers in harm’s way, including low-income people of color who already face disproportionate enforcement attention, as well as corrections, police, and court officers. 

Currently, there are over 900 people held in jails on Rikers Island over the age of 50. At least two-thirds have chronic medical conditions, around 300 are held on a parole warrant, around 200 are held on bail, and 75 on a city sentence. 

“Over-incarceration and the approach to broken windows policing have long been a disastrous approach devastating lives and communities,” said Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams. “Now, amid the rapid spread of COVID-19, the public health danger is even greater and more acute. I’m calling on the NYPD to suspend non-violent, so-called victimless quality of life arrests which could increase exposure rates among at-risk individuals, and calling on the Department of Corrections to release those who are most at risk from incarceration, where the close-quarters contact of our jails represents an immediate danger. New York State, right now, is showing itself willing to use incarcerated labor to respond to COVID-19, but not to adequately protect incarcerated people from it. The city must do better. If we value safety in this city, we value safety. If we value health, we value health. If we value each other, we value each other. If we continue to knowingly expose the most vulnerable New Yorkers to this disease through over policing of broken-windows offenses, those values are laid bare.”

“This crisis has put the stark differences in how our society cares for and values people into sharp relief,” said Council Member Brad Lander. “While many New Yorkers are staying home, stocking up, and washing their hands, people who are incarcerated are trapped in close quarters without sufficient cleaning supplies and inadequate medical care. And the public employees who staff the jails and courts are at severe risk as well, as we saw this week when an investigator on Rikers Island became one of the first casualties of this crisis. New York City and New York State have a responsibility to shrink the jail population by halting arrests for low-level offenses and releasing people who are most vulnerable to illness. If we fail to do so, the increased death toll will be on our hands, and no amount of soap will wash it away.”

Public Advocate Williams and Council Member Lander joined Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), who sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio on March 17, 2020, calling for a moratorium on police enforcement of low-level and “quality of life” offenses, specifically including enforcement activities that target street vendors, canners, fare evaders, those perceived to be sex workers, and others in informal economies. 

Williams and Lander specifically called on Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD to:

  • Suspend all low-level, “broken windows” arrests, including all those without victims. This includes a moratorium on arrests for quality-of-life crimes and fare evasion, and on the NYPD’s “homeless diversion” program. Williams and Lander praised Brooklyn DA Eric Gonazlez, who has informed the NYPD that he will not prosecute these offenses, and urged other DAs to do the same.

    Where necessary, NYPD officers can write desk appearance tickets (DATs); as of today, the New York State Courts have adjourned all DATs for 120 days, so they will be heard after the crisis.

  • Cease executing summons and bench warrants during the COVID-19 crisis. NYPD should not use the fact that people are at home to execute old warrants for long outstanding minor offenses.

They called on Governor Cuomo and the New York State Department of Corrections to:

  • Cease the practice of incarcerating people on parole for technical violations. New York imprisons the second-highest number of people for technical violations of parole in the United States, at a rate (47%) nearly double the national average (28%).
  • Immediately release individuals in custody who are at the highest risk of serious health complications if they contract COVID-19, including older adults, pregnant women, people with respiratory conditions, people who are immunocompromised, and people with other chronic health conditions. They echo the recommendation from Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez that Governor Cuomo consider clemency petitions of older incarcerated people and those with preexisting health conditions. DA Gonzalez has asked defense attorneys to help identify these individuals. 

Many of these calls echo those made by doctors in City jails in a letter to the Mayor released last week by Council Members Lander and Ritchie Torres. 

These steps are not without precedent. Last week, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin directed his staff to “strongly consider” credit for time served in plea deals so that more people could be released during this public health crisis. An Ohio County jail moved to release hundreds of elderly and other vulnerable people over the weekend. The County of Los Angeles has begun releasing inmates early and reducing arrests to reduce crowding in the jails. And closer to home, the New York City Board of Correction just released guidance recommending the release of a number of vulnerable incarcerated people, including people over 50 years old, people with underlying health conditions, and people detained for administered reasons.

In addition, as in-person visits have been suspended in New York City jails and prisons for the foreseeable future, Williams and Lander urge the Mayor and the Department of Corrections to:

  • Ensure that incarcerated individuals have regular, unimpeded, and private access to teleconferencing and phone calls and free stamps so that they can see and talk with loved ones during this crisis. 

Finally, Williams and Lander urged all levels of law enforcement to:

  • Commit to protect human and civil rights in the event of more emergency measures such as quarantine areas or curfews, and to provide transparent and prompt communications about all such measures.

As elected officials who have fought alongside CPR against abusive and discriminatory policy for years, Williams and Lander share their concern that as this public health crisis grows, so too may violations of civil and human rights.

“Reducing low-level arrests and releasing vulnerable people held in our city’s jails will help prevent Rikers Island from becoming a hotbed of infection that spreads far beyond its walls,” said Lander and Williams. “As we begin to release people, we also need to make sure many have a safe place to go. Just as we are working to create a surge in hospital capacity, we also need to create a surge in homeless shelters and services. The safety and health of many thousands of New Yorkers depends on it.”

“Broken windows policing tactics have long been a civil rights crisis in New York City, but with the continued spread of COVID-19, it is increasingly clear how badly these tactics have worsened existing public health crises and hurt community health,” said Michael Sisitzky, Lead Policy Counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The same communities who have been disproportionately impacted by broken windows policing are among those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. The NYPD must commit to a moratorium on low-level enforcement as part of the city’s effort to combat the pandemic while safeguarding the civil rights and liberties of all New Yorkers.”

“In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic where NYC is navigating how to center public health and human rights, there is no good reason for the NYPD to engage in broken windows policing. There should be no stops, tickets or arrests for offenses like fare evasion or possession of small amounts of marijuana. The same communities that experience hyper-aggressive, abusive policing in general are under increased threat of abuse in this context.  In this moment of crisis, we need Mayor de Blasio & Commissioner Shea to prioritize the public health needs and human rights of all New Yorkers over any impulse to increase – or even continue – abusive broken windows policing practices,” said Kesi Foster, Make the Road NY Lead Organizer and a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform (CPR).