Bills would create a local release commission, require greater transparency during public health emergencies, and address excess fees placed on families transferring money to those in custody
New York, NY, May 19, 2020 — Chair of the New York City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee Keith Powers will today introduce three bills at a hearing focused on the city’s response to COVID-19 in city jails. The following bills will address the preparedness of city jails in public health emergencies:
- Establish a City conditional release commission to expand release of city-sentenced individuals. Intro. 6175, co-sponsored by Council Member Farah Louis, would create a Mayoral-appointed five-person commission to review and recommend release for certain individuals who are incarcerated on City Sentences. To qualify, individuals would 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 would 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. 6183 would 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 or staff. This legislation would also require those in custody to be provided with weekly updates from healthcare professionals.
- Lower fees charged for transferring money into commissary accounts. Intro 6184, co-sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Council Member Kalman Yeger, would limit the fees charged to individuals transferring money to commissary accounts. Individuals are currently charged up to $20.00 per transaction to send funds online. In-person, the fee is $8.95, but in the midst of a pandemic, in-person deposits are not permitted. This bill would set a $5.00 limit. Fines and fees have historically compounded harm on those impacted by the criminal justice system. This provides a form of relief.
“The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the need for greater accountability, transparency, and humanity in our criminal justice system. These issues should not only be addressed in real time in response to this public health emergency, but also to prepare us for the future and address plain injustices,” said Chair Keith Powers.
Rikers Island, a hotspot for the coronavirus, has seen the pandemic impacting incarcerated individuals and staff alike. According to recent data from the Board of Correction, there are currently 362 incarcerated individuals on Rikers Island experiencing COVID-19, with more than 1,300 Department of Correction staff infected over the course of the crisis.
“Exorbitant fees for phone calls and transferring money have long amplified the inequities of the criminal legal system for low-income communities of color,” said Council Member Brad Lander. “Now, in an economic crisis sparked by a pandemic that has hit New Yorkers of color hardest, they are even more unconscionable. These fees are siphoning money away from families who are trying hard to support incarcerated loved ones to get the supplies, food, and protective equipment they need to stay safe and healthy. I’m grateful to Council Member Powers for leading this effort, and proud to co-sponsor this legislation.”
“As in so many areas, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the inequities and injustices that have already existed,” said Public Advocate Williams. “The fees for individuals transferring money to commissary accounts are not only burdensome, but unequal – charging more than double for those unable to visit their incarcerated loved ones is unjust in normal times, and impossible in the time of this pandemic. I’m proud to join Council Members Powers and Lander on this legislation, which would limit these fees and provide vital relief to incarcerated and their families already suffering disproportionately from COVID-19.”
On April 8, Council Member Powers wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo with a series of recommendations to manage COVID-19 in city jails, including advocating for the designation of a person responsible for managing the pandemic’s response for city jails and the release of more individuals in vulnerable communities and individuals incarcerated for technical parole violations. He and his colleagues have also pushed for the early release of individuals incarcerated on city sentences, as well as additional screenings and tests to manage the crisis.
The Criminal Justice Committee will meet jointly with the Justice System Committee today, Tuesday, May 19, at 12:00 P.M. over Zoom.