By ARIEL HERNANDEZ
As the city examines plans to close Rikers Island—the 413-acre jail complex that sits on the East River between Queens and the Bronx—a study was recently released that addresses expanding the state’s supervised-release program.
A study by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform that was released last week stated that the supervised-release program, which would eliminate cash bail, could be expanded without state-level reform and possibly reduce Rikers Island’s jail population by nearly 2,000 inmates.
“When combined with jail reduction strategies in other areas, supervised release can help to move the city towards a total jail population that falls from approximately 8,400 individuals today to fewer than 5,000 in the coming years, thus enabling the closure of Rikers,” the study reads.
The city’s Criminal Justice Agency (CJA) implemented its first supervised-release program in Queens in 2009 and was expanded citywide in 2016. The data gathered during the study are from the current supervised-release program. The study examined the program as an alternative to bail, and how it allows for the city to develop strategies to ensure that eligible defendants are given supervised release, rather than being released on bail.
The expansion of the program would provide supervised release for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony defendants, with the exception of those accused of domestic violence. However, select violent-felony defendants and misdemeanor domestic-violence defendants could be admitted into an enhanced supervised-release tract that provides supervision and would mandate that defendants attend intervention programs.
Those who pose a high risk for future violence and are charged with the most serious violence felonies would not be eligible to participate in the program.
As of May 31, 75 percent of the people held in city jails, the majority of whom were held in Rikers, were detained because they could not afford bail, according to the study. A total of 89 percent of the defendants are unable to secure payment, leaving them stuck in Rikers for years.
“Way too many people are sitting on Rikers Island because they can’t afford to buy their freedom, whether it’s $5 or $5,000,” said Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), who is the chairman of the Committee on the Justice System.
Lancman said that when a person is granted bail, it is the court’s manner of saying that “you are free to walk the streets, if you can afford it.”
According to Lancman, the program would be good for reducing the population on Rikers Island, and would benefit taxpayers.
“This will prevent people from sitting on Rikers Island and wasting taxpayer money because they can’t come up with bail money,” said Lancman. “They will still be prosecuted for their crimes, and if they do not show up to their court proceedings, they will be issued a warrant and their supervised release will be canceled.”
If a defendant is deemed eligible for supervised release, his/her defense attorney will propose the option to the judge. If the judge agrees, the defendant is released and mandated to report back to the supervised-release agency until the case is resolved.
During the supervised-release meeting, the defendant will meet with a social worker, who sets a check-in schedule and provides referrals for programs and services appropriate for the case. If the defendant is accused of a more-severe crime, the social worker might demand that they meet or have scheduled phone calls from one to four times per month.
“New York City’s current supervised release program has been a success and we believe its use in lieu of bail should be expanded significantly,” the study reads. “In misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases where release on recognizance is not appropriate, supervised release should replace bail as a fundamental policy matter. Although a large scale expansion of supervised release will require significant changes in practice and new funding for research, education and capacity, these investments would be money well spent.
Reach Ariel Hernandez at (718) 357-7400 x 144, firstname.lastname@example.org or @reporter_ariel.