Series: From the President

Waiting to Go to Court Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence

Nicholas Turner President & Director
Mar 18, 2022
New York, USA. 12th Jan, 2022. The mother of 24-year-old Stephen Khadu, who died at Rikers Island, addresses activists at a rally protesting the crisis at New York City jail outside City Hall in New York, New York, on Jan. 20, 2022. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann/Sipa USA) Credit: Sipa USA/Alamy Live News.

Tarz Youngblood, the first person to die in New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex in 2022, was a father of three—two three-year-old twins and a six-year-old. At the time of his death, he was presumed innocent of the crimes for which he was charged and was being held on $10,000 bail. Unable to pay, he had spent more than six months waiting for trial in hellish conditions.

As of March 14, 2022, there were 4,682 people waiting for their trials in New York City jails. Of them, 2,206 had been waiting for six months or more, and 1,474 had been waiting more than a year.

As is typical in the U.S. criminal legal system, the suffering caused by long-term pretrial detention falls hardest on people who are marginalized.

Sixty percent of the people in New York City’s jails who have lost a year or more of their lives to pretrial detention are Black, even though Black people make up only about 24 percent of New York City’s population.

People with mental health conditions are also disproportionately affected by long-term pretrial detention, as behaviors associated with untreated mental illness are criminalized, and our lack of societal investment in treatment options has made jails de-facto mental health facilities. Nearly half of the people who are detained in New York City jails have been designated with BradH status—a designation given to people who have met with mental health staff at the Department of Correction and are deemed to have at least some symptoms of mental illness.

Though the city spends an obscene $556,539 to jail a single New Yorker for a year, less than 5 percent of this funding goes to programming, nutrition, drug treatment, and other services that address circumstances that can lead to arrest.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees people the right to a speedy trial, but people who are presumed innocent are being left to suffer on Rikers Island and in other jails for far too long. The pandemic has slowed court proceedings, making chronic backlogs even worse. People who face long-term pretrial detention in terrible conditions can feel pressure to plead guilty—not based on the strength of the case against them but instead out of desperation to escape profound danger and disorder.

New York City’s jails have long been dangerous and are getting worse. Last May, a federal monitor described a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos” on Rikers Island, where the average annual use of force by guards rate increased nearly 200 percent from 2016 to 2020. Sixteen people died while in New York City’s jails in 2021, more than in the previous two years combined.

We cannot allow ourselves to be desensitized. People who are waiting for trial are being severely punished in dehumanizing conditions for indeterminate periods. Even short periods of pretrial detention can devastate a person, causing job and housing loss and damaged family connections. In cases like Youngblood’s, the damage done by long-term pretrial detention is irreversible and will reverberate through generations.

No one should lose their life while waiting for trial. The city must close Rikers Island and end its persistent human rights violations. As an immediate step, New York’s District Attorneys should help safely reduce the population on Rikers Island by choosing not to seek the detention of people facing low-level and nonviolent charges and requesting that judges release those currently being detained at Rikers. In all but the most serious cases, DAs should refrain from requesting bail and, instead, seek pretrial programming and services that address the needs of people facing criminal charges. In the rare cases in which bail is appropriate, DAs should not request bail amounts beyond what New Yorkers can afford. It’s past time to end the horror that is Rikers Island and invest in non-carceral public safety solutions that heal the communities most harmed by mass incarceration.