Court Should Consider Taking Over Dept. of Correction, Warns Manhattan U.S. Attorney

Yves here. New York City’sRikers Island has long been a national disgrace, which is a remarkable status given the generally awful conditions in city jails. Filthy, overcrowded and dangerous pre-trial detention wards have also served as a strong argument for bail reform. Nasty holding tanks, where the accused can languish for months before their case is heard, makes a mockery of the notion that citizens are innocent until proven guilty. At the same time, city-dwellers who are in a lather about rising crime rates (even though they are still much lower than in the 1970s through mid 1990s) get particularly exercised about bail reform.

Keep in mind that New York’s version is pretty modest: only those charged with misdemeanors and non-violent crimes are eligible. And New York bail standards have longe been based on whether the accused is deemed to be a flight risk, as opposed to whether he could be argued to be dangerous. As the Brennan Center explains:

Accord­ing to the new law, judges have the option to set bail in almost any case involving a viol­ent felony. In these “bail eligible” cases, a defend­ant must pay an assessed bail or face deten­tion. In virtu­ally all other cases, which include most misde­mean­ors and nonvi­ol­ent felon­ies, judges may release people on their own recog­niz­ance or impose some other set of condi­tions to ensure their return to court. Such condi­tions include restric­tions on travel or super­vi­sion by a pretrial super­vi­sion agency….

Notably, judges also retain the abil­ity to set bail in some cases considered high-risk. Judges may set bail for defend­ants who have been released and are rearres­ted for another offense, provided both charges are felon­ies or Class A misde­mean­ors and involve harm to a person or prop­erty. For example, a judge may set bail for a person who was charged with punch­ing someone in a bar fight, released, and then arres­ted for injur­ing someone in another fight….

Many have argued that bail reform is respons­ible for rising crime in New York State, both in and out of New York City. But crime rose all across the coun­try in 2020, making it unwise to look for explan­a­tions that are confined to New York…. One recent analysis by the Times Union of Albany sugges­ted that relat­ively few people released under the new law went on to be rearres­ted for seri­ous offenses.

Of course, keeping someone locked up who has not yet been found guilty deprives them of income and could completely wreck their employment prospects. But the existence of hell holes like Rikers makes it even harder to justify pre-trial lockup for anything other than seriously violent criminals who look to be up to their old tricks again.

By Reuven Blau. Originally published at THE CITY on April 19, 2022

Rikers Island is one step closer to being under total federal control.

The city’s jails “are in a state of crisis…and action is desperately needed now,” wrote Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in a scathing court filing to a federal judge on Tuesday.

Williams threatened to push for the entire city Department of Correction to be put under a court-appointed receiver, who would have power to totally revamp the agency and ignore existing union contract rules.

The lack of “dramatic systemic reforms” would leave his office with no other choice “but to seek more aggressive relief” like a court-appointed receiver given total control, he wrote.

Currently, only the jail facility itself is under federal watch. Williams noted that more than six years of oversight by federal monitor Steve Martin has led to few improvements.

“We remain alarmed by the extraordinary level of violence and disorder at the jails and the ongoing imminent risk of harm that inmates and correction officers face every day,” Williams wrote to federal judge Laura Taylor Swain, who has overseen the case for years.

In an unusual move, Williams asked the court to order Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and a representative from City Hall to attend the next meeting with the monitor and the feds on Thursday so they can directly respond to any questions.

Williams said neither Molina “nor department operational staff” attended meetings on April 5 and April 14 to discuss the city’s broader plans to improve conditions.

On April 15, the Department of Correction Twitter account touted how Molina attended the New York International Auto Show at the Javits Center to display some of the agency’s new vehicle fleet.

On Tuesday, when asked about the court filing, Mayor Eric Adams blamed his predecessors and made vague promises of reform.

“Rikers was a mess,” he told reporters. “And we need to be clear on that. It did not start in January. And we’re going to move forward to make it a humane place.”

A History of Violence

Martin, a corrections consultant from Austin, Texas, was appointed federal monitor in the summer of 2015 as part of a sweeping settlement tied to a class-action suit by a group of city inmates who alleged abuses by officers that included excessive solitary confinement and beatings.

Then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara later joined the so-called Nunez case, named after the lead defendant, citing a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teen inmates at Rikers Island.

Under the terms of the court settlement, the DOC has taken some measures intended to reduce the use of physical force by officers, such as revising policy in 2017 to order officers to avoid blows to inmates’ heads with fists or batons unless their lives are being threatened.

But escalating violence and inhumane conditions have persisted and spurred calls for change from decarceration activists and local politicians who have asked Gov. Kathy Hochul to bring in the National Guard and pleaded with President Joe Biden to intervene.

The department has also been plagued by a staffing crisis, with at least 1,000 officers calling out sick on average each day.

Martin’s monitoring team has itself hired an “independent expert in correctional staffing” to analyze how and where officers are deployed. A highly anticipated report on that analysis has taken more than a year to compile and there’s no target date for its release.

The Correction Officers Benevolent Association has contended the city should hire at least 2,000 new officers, bringing the systemwide total to approximately 10,000.

But Martin and former jail commissioners have pointed out that hundreds of correction officers are assigned to administrative tasks like data entry, secretarial support, time keeping, social services and analytics.

Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for COBA did not respond to requests seeking comment on the possible push for a court-appointed total takeover.

‘A Drastic Remedy’

The appointment of a receiver is rare and typically seen as a last resort but not unprecedented.

In 2007, Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center was put under a receiver. Earl Dunlap, a nationally recognized expert, stepped aside in 2015 after implementing a series of reforms.

In 2005, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was taken over by a court-appointed receiver. That takeover has had mixed results and remains partially in place.

Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice from 2014 until 2020, told THE CITY last year that she believed the appointment of a federal receiver, with emergency powers to make unilateral decisions, was the only possible solution.

She and former Correction Commissioner Michael Jacobson, who served during the Dinkins and Giuliani administration, also recommended that takeover in a Daily News editorial last week.

“It’s a drastic remedy,” Glazer said Tuesday, “but I don’t see any other way out at this point.”

“It’s pretty powerful medicine,” she added.

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  1. Susan the other

    So, I realize that mandates by election are not the same as “contracts” exactly, but similar, so I’m sitting here wondering if we might possibly be able to put the entire US Congress under receivership?

  2. LAS

    “she believed the appointment of a federal receiver, with emergency powers to make unilateral decisions, was the only possible solution” — possible solution. The only possible solution.
    Used to be people talked about closing down Rikers altogether, moving people elsewhere — if my recall is accurate. I forget why that idea was ditched.

  3. David in Santa Cruz

    Hmm…. So that Rikers can transition from being a city hell-hole to a federal hell-hole? Will the Feds also manage the backed-up courts?

    How about we eliminate the need for places like Rikers by creating a society that values all its citizens by providing everyone well-compensated employment, respect for all work, decent and affordable housing, free health care, nurturing child care, an adequate pension, secure borders (there is no domestic heroin and virtually all meth and fentanyl are produced in Mexico from Chinese precursors), and the equal protection and enforcement of all laws?

    Until that day comes, Judge, I ain’t waiving no time!

  4. Dave in Austin

    If we had functioning courts that actually forced cases to be heard within a month of arrest, much of the problem would be solved. But that is impossible because:

    1) trials and motions drag on forever. Judge-induced proceedure-clot.
    2) Judges and administrators don’t work overtime.
    3) Since in the past 50 years law school went from $500/semester to $10,000/semester, the number of new lawyers is down and they have to charge huge fees to justify the three years lost income and $60,000 bill. And why a four year degree to go to law school? Why law school at all? Abraham Lincoln did fine with neither.

    1. JBird4049

      The constitutional right to a speedy trial, like much of our other rights, has been destroyed by exceptions or loopholes created by the judiciary, much like how “qualified immunity” for the police and near absolute immunity for prosecutors and district attorneys has made the whole legal system a means of oppressing the poor, weak, and vulnerable while protecting the powerful from any resistance from the oppressed; it also has become a means to gather more wealth and power from the nation and give it to the elites; the legal or justice system has often been more fiction than reality, but right now is almost gone away instead of merely being insubstantial. Just how just is civil asset forfeiture, false imprisonment, or near immunity for murder and assault?

      Those who should know better do not realize that the power, wealth, and esteem or status that have is a gift from the system that they are in. Almost any society’s elites’ power comes from the acceptance of those ruled, governed, or led. This is a cliché in American political theory, but it is still true, and history has many examples of the destruction of those who forget it and allow the belief in their legitimacy to go away. That whatever replaces them is often worse and the process is often even worse doesn’t change anything.

      Rikers is an example of both oppression and contempt for the oppressed. If people like Michael Bloomberg or even Gavin Newsom had to stay even a day, that pit would be a well staffed, equipped, run, and spotless Taj Mahal for a criminal court treated likewise. But it’s just those people.

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