In light of COVID-19, legislation will establish a local release commission and require greater transparency during public health emergencies
New York, NY, May 28, 2020 – The City Council today passed two bills to better equip the city to respond to public health emergencies, introduced by New York City Council Member Keith Powers, Chair of the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee. The legislation was created in response to the COVID-19 crisis, to establish new procedures and processes for the current pandemic and any future health emergency.
“COVID-19 created a hot spot of infection in city jails, demonstrating a lack of basic systems and protections within facilities,” said Criminal Justice Chair Keith Powers. “Requiring greater transparency in real time and creating a mechanism to safely release individuals from detention will help manage this crisis while preparing our city jails for the future. Having these systems in place better positions the city to respond to public health crises in our jails.”
The bills will:
- Establish a City conditional release commission to expand release of city-sentenced individuals. Intro. 1956, co-sponsored by Council Member Farah Louis, will create a Mayoral-appointed five-person commission to review and recommend release for certain individuals who are incarcerated on City Sentences. To qualify, individuals will have to have served for at least 90 days of their sentence, have verified community ties, and not be convicted of any offense ineligible for merit time (such as obscenity or domestic violence offenses). This commission will operate regardless of if the City is in a public health emergency but is especially crucial now.
- Require greater transparency from the Department of Correction (DOC) and Correctional Health Services (CHS) during public health emergencies. Intro. 1954 will require DOC and CHS to publicly report daily and cumulative data during any public health crisis on the number of infections, hospitalizations, diagnoses, and deaths of people in custody. Additionally, it will require extensive reporting on testing and the use of any CHS hotlines by incarcerated individuals, as well as data on infection rates among staff. This legislation will also require those in custody to be provided with weekly updates from healthcare professionals.
The legislation will take effect immediately. During an oversight hearing on May 19, it was found that 7-9 percent of newly admitted individuals on Rikers Island tested positive for the coronavirus, relatively higher than the city’s general population. As of May 15, 1,054 incarcerated had been tested, with 545 positive cumulative cases, according to the Department of Correction (DOC) and Correctional Health Services (CHS). At least 1,344 DOC staff have tested positive for the virus, as have 185 CHS staff. The city has lost at least three incarcerated individuals to the virus, along with at least 10 correction officers.
“Ever since COVID-19 descended on our City, it was clear to many that the measures intended to keep the general public safe would be nearly impossible to implement in detention centers. People incarcerated in our City’s jails made it clear that they did not feel safe or adequately prepared to protect themselves from the virus,” said Council Member Farah Louis. “Under these circumstances, we cannot afford to wait while the wheels of justice remain stalled and people in the custody of a system that cannot protect them continue to face life-threatening danger. This commission will act as an alternative way for non-violent offenders in the City’s facilities to access conditional release and is intended to be informed by both experts in the criminal justice system and restorative justice advocates. I am proud to co-sponsor this bill alongside Chair Powers.”
“As the City’s largest alternative to incarceration, NYC Probation is ready to implement the newly-established local conditional release commission to help ensure that New York City remains the least incarcerative and safest big city in the nation,” said Department of Probation Commissioner Ana M. Bermúdez. “Working with our partners, we are poised to create a seamlessly integrated transition from incarceration process. From application through community supervision, we aim to leverage Probation’s proven continuum of community supervision and its attendant cost-savings and efficiencies, as well as our community engagement competencies and established community stakeholder groups. We look forward to working closely with Chair Powers and the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee in further connecting this critical work with communities that have historically been disproportionately represented in the incarceration pipeline.”
“The COVID-19 crisis has shown the public health dangers of incarceration, as thousands of New Yorkers are held in dangerous conditions in which the virus has spread rapidly,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “This legislation is a much needed first step towards ensuring that the City has all available tools to keep people safe and reduce its reliance on incarceration.”
“It makes absolute sense to evaluate people’s behavior in jail and reward them with conditional release as Councilmember Powers’ bill provides for,” said Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab and former New York City Probation Commissioner. “People incarcerated at Rikers should be incentivized to play by the rules and engage in programming and there’s no more powerful incentive than the prospect of conditional release. As we replace Rikers with borough-based jails and reform city corrections, a greater emphasis on rehabilitation will be key to progress, and conditional release is an important part of that package.”
“JustLeadershipUSA and Survivors of Rikers Island enthusiastically support Council Member Keith Powers’ leadership in passing two urgent bills as a part of COVID-19 response efforts and our shared vision of a decarcerated New York,” said DeAnna Hoskins, President & CEO of JustLeadershipUSA. “The progress we have made in bringing the daily jail population below 4,000 during the pandemic is an effort which must be protected at all costs. The re-establishment of a local conditional release committee presents the opportunity not only to ensure the safe release of people from New York City jails but also a pathway to investing in permanent alternatives outside of detention and incarceration. The urgency of our work to shrink the jail population, demolish the 12 existing jails, and enforce true culture transformation within the justice system is directly tied to the urgency of fully funding and supporting communities, not only in a time of crisis and panic, but always. The mission to close Rikers in partnership with directly impacted people and advocates is more urgent now than ever.”
“The pain and misery that COVID-19 has wrought on Rikers Island has only created more urgency to shut down that awful place. In order to do so, we have to create new ways to reduce incarceration and to ensure that anyone who remains incarcerated is kept safe and receives the health care they require, especially amidst a pandemic like this one,” said Former Chief Judge of New York State and Chair of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice & Incarceration Reform Jonathan Lippman. “I thank Council Member Keith Powers for putting forward legislation that will create a conditional release commission and require additional public health reporting, actions that will help put an end to the stain of Rikers Island and the system of mass incarceration that it represents.”
“We applaud the City Council for passing legislation that will result in more transparency about the spread of COVID-19 in city jails,” said Minister, Dr. Victoria Phillips, Ms. V, Community, Health & Justice Organizer, Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project. “Jail conditions place this population at great risk of contracting the virus. Everyone should be informed of what is happening behind the walls of these closed institutions, which are even more inaccessible during a public health emergency. Data reported as a result of this legislation will enable policymakers, advocates, and families of incarcerated individuals to take timely action to address problems revealed through this reporting.”
“Thank you to Keith Powers for his invaluable leadership in achieving the NYC City Council’s passage of Intro. 6175 and Intro. 6183, which address and promote public awareness of the humanity and critical health concerns of detained citizens amid this turbulent era of COVID-19,” said Donna Hylton, activist and author. “Going forward, we urge Mayor de Blasio to include a jury of impacted peers on the Local Release Commission to properly and fairly inform the application of the new legislation.”
“When New York City emerged as the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in our nation, Rikers Island quickly became the epicenter of the epicenter. Within a matter of days,1 in 10 people incarcerated at Rikers were infected with the virus. The calls and letters we receive from those trapped behind bars, most of whom have not been convicted but remain incarcerated because they cannot afford cash bail, paint the picture of a living nightmare: social distancing is impossible, violence rates are high, conditions are far from hygienic, and disinfectant is scarce at best,” said Alex Tereshonkova of the Emergency Release Fund. “The need to end wealth-based detention is more urgent than ever, as arrests become death sentences for those jailed for their poverty. While the Department of Correction reporting suggests the outbreak is under control, testimony from people living through this deadly crisis shows otherwise. With the passage of Local Law 6183 and 6175, we hope for greater transparency and accountability from the Department of Correction as they address the outbreak of COVID-19 in our City jails.”