Oversight panel eyes excessive bail, jail overcrowding in New York City
The House Oversight and Reform Committee has requested briefings from five New York City district attorneys regarding prison conditions and excessive bail.
“We have grave concerns that excessive bail amounts are leading to unnecessary pretrial detention and contributing to a humanitarian crisis in New York City’s jail system, particularly on Rikers Island. Fourteen people have died this year in the custody of New York City Department of Correction,” the members of the committee wrote in their letter.
“Condemning thousands of individuals to languish in an environment plagued by persistent overcrowding and mounting violence as they await trial is not acceptable, and risks violating the federal civil rights of these individuals. If these conditions are not addressed, federal intervention may be necessary to protect detainees from additional harm,” they added.
According to the committee, three-quarters of those in custody in New York have not been convicted of a crime and are currently in custody due to being unable to afford bail. The members of the committee specifically pointed to the “understaffed” Rikers Island, where they described conditions as having “deteriorated dramatically” in the past few months.
In 2019, the New York legislature passed a bail reform package aimed at reducing the number of crimes for which judges could set bail. The new measure was in effect for the first half of 2020, but was later rolled back in response to criticisms from the police that it was causing a spike in crimes. Supporters of the package said it had not been in place long enough to truly see the long-term effects.
Four members of New York’s congressional delegation wrote to Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in September calling for Rikers Island to be closed completely due to inhumane conditions.
The issue of New York bail reform garnered national attention due to the imprisonment of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager who was detained for three years at Rikers without ever being charged with a crime, because Browder’s family was unable to pay the $3,000 bail.
Browder was ultimately released in 2013 when the charges against him were dismissed. He committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 22.
In their letter to the district attorneys, the members of the committee requested that they direct prosecutors to seek new bail hearings for individuals charged with misdemeanors or non-violent felonies and those who face health risks due to COVID-19.
They also requested information regarding what actions the DAs have taken to reduce New York’s jail population and what factors were considered when determining if an individual was eligible for supervised release.
The letters were signed by committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) as well as Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
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