NYC Public Advocate Pushes For Rikers Reforms After Calling For Federal Receivership

May 30th, 2023

Press Release

NEW YORK: After calling for Rikers to be put under federal receivership, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams furthered his call for reforms on Rikers Island in a statement to the Committees on Criminal Justice and Oversight and Investigations as part of a joint hearing today. The hearing was focused primarily on the Department of Correction’s transportation of detained individuals to Court. a longstanding issue on the island which has contributed to the crisis conditions which now require further federal intervention to protect people on both sides of the bars.

Public Advocate Williams called for receivership after an alarming report from the Rikers federal monitor on Friday revealed recent incidents of harm in the city’s jails and a resistance to transparency from the administration. These were the latest in a long series of incidents for a crisis that dates back and administrations.

“I don’t celebrate this step, which I know would bring its own challenges, but it is clear that when it comes to protecting people on both sides of the bars and correcting the crisis conditions on Rikers, after over a year of purported reforms, this administration has earned neither the trust nor the confidence it shows in this area,” said the Public Advocate in his making call. “They did not create the longstanding issues on Rikers, but despite any efforts they have undertaken, patterns of abuse, neglect, secrecy and misinformation have continued.”

As part of addressing the crisis conditions on Rikers, where the large majority of detainees are held pre-trial, the Public Advocate pushed for measures to help ensure more detainees are able to attend their court appearances and move through the judicial process.

“As we strive to close Rikers, the Department of Correction must improve the rate of court production,” said the Public Advocate. “Delays and postponed hearings and trials further burden our judicial system and force people to remain incarcerated longer than necessary as they wait for new court dates.”

He made clear that increasing the rate of court production is essential to the ultimate goal of closing Rikers, arguing that “Court delays have significantly led to rapid population growth at Rikers, complicating the planned closing of the jail…the majority of people in the jails on Rikers Island have not been convicted of any crime, and these long stays are unacceptable, and violates their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.”

The Public Advocate’s full statement to the committee is below, and his statement calling for receivership is here.

STATEMENT OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS

TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEES ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS

MAY 30, 2023

Good afternoon, 

My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chairs Rivera and Brewer and the members of the Committees on Criminal Justice and Oversight and Investigations for holding this hearing. 

Access to the courts is a vital necessity to those incarcerated in our city’s jail yet recent statistics from the Mayor’s Management Report indicate that more than a quarter of people incarcerated in NYC jails are either not getting to court on time or failing to show up for their court appearances. It is the highest rate of failure on record since the data became publicly available in 1999 and a departure from just two years ago when the rate of court transportation was 94.6 percent. 

As we strive to close Rikers, the Department of Correction (DOC) must improve the rate of court production. Delays and postponed hearings and trials further burden our judicial system and force people to remain incarcerated longer than necessary as they wait for new court dates. Furthermore, court delays have significantly led to rapid population growth at Rikers, complicating the planned closing of the jail. The city forecasts that the jail population will increase to 7,000 by next year, but the four proposed borough-based replacement jails together cannot house more than 3,300 people. Last year, those incarcerated on Rikers Island awaiting the conclusion of their cases spent an average of 115 days locked up, four times the national average. According to a list of the longest-serving detainees in city custody obtained by THE CITY last year, several men have been on Rikers Island and in other city Department of Correction jails for years, with one person housed there for more than a decade. It is important to reiterate that the majority of people in the jails on Rikers Island have not been convicted of any crime, and these long stays are unacceptable, and violates their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.

Court delays can be attributed to understaffing and chronic misuse of sick leave. Though DOC has made improvements in its overall absence rate, the recent Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report for the first four months of Fiscal 2023 indicates DOC still had the highest absence rate out of all city agencies at 17.4 percent, a decrease from FY 2022’s total absence rate of 26.58 percent. In addition to delayed transportation of detainees for court hearings and trials, unlimited sick leave has also opened the door for exploitation and abuse, leaving jails understaffed and officers vulnerable to violence. This chronic lack of staffing has also led to an overuse of emergency lockdowns; during a lockdown, there is no movement on or off Rikers Island, meaning that the people incarcerated there cannot leave the jail to go to court.

There is also a lack of adequate space to hold people transported from jail in the courthouses, and inadequate staff to escort people from holding cells to the courtroom itself. For those who have a scheduled court appearance, the day starts early: as there are no longer jails close to the courthouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn, detainees are typically woken at 4:00 am to be shackled and bussed to the courthouse. Even with the early start, many are still late to their hearings. This causes a domino effect of delayed hearings. 

The dangerous and inhumane conditions that exist at Rikers Island take a significant toll on detainees, exacerbating physical and mental health struggles. More than half of the population at Rikers has a mental health diagnosis, with 16 percent having a serious mental illness. Ensuring that people spend as little time as possible in these conditions means processing their cases in a timely fashion. We call on the Department of Corrections and the Adams administration to rectify this issue and create a criminal justice system that is truly just. Thank you.

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