23 Community Groups, Service Providers, and Advocacy Groups Call on New York City’s Five District Attorneys to Act on Policy Recommendations to Decarcerate Rikers Island

The coalition urges New York City District Attorneys, who have the most power to implement solutions to this crisis, to release incarcerated New Yorkers immediately

New York, NY—Today, a coalition of 23 community and advocacy groups, including Vera Action, the Vera Institute of Justice's independent 501(c)(4), and Color of Change, issued a public call to New York City’s five District Attorneys in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island to take immediate action to decarcerate Rikers Island. These District Attorneys wield enormous power over who is and is not incarcerated, yet they have not stepped up to meet this moment of extreme crisis. In addition to public calls to action, the coalition is planning a targeted digital and broadcast advertising campaign to highlight the urgency of this issue.

Unlike at the start of the pandemic when, under pressure from the public, the District Attorneys consented to the release of 1,500 people from jail to quell the spread of COVID-19 behind bars, at this moment they have chosen not to act. This coalition knows that time is of the essence. Fourteen people have died in city jails in the past year, including Victor Mercado, 64, on Friday, and Anthony Scott, 58, on Monday. The District Attorneys’ inaction is putting more lives at risk.

The coalition urges the District Attorneys to safely reduce the population at Rikers Island by adopting three commonsense measures: releasing everyone in jail facing low-level and nonviolent charges; relying on the city’s extensive network of community-based service providers and alternatives to incarceration to individually review and consider release for everyone else; and no longer requesting bail amounts beyond what New Yorkers can afford.

These recommendations take into account public safety, as well as the safety crisis behind bars. If the coalition’s recommendations were implemented by the five District Attorneys, the jail population would decrease by at least 2,000 people almost immediately.

The current conditions on Rikers Island support the conclusion that decarceration is the only effective immediate solution. The jail population has increased by 47 percent since spring 2020, despite COVID-19 still raging behind bars today at an infection rate five times higher than the community average. Almost one out of six people at Rikers Island have been detained pretrial for longer than 600 days. The rate of deaths in custody has soared, with more suicides in 2021 than in the past five years combined. Even though the Department of Correction has 8,400 officers on payroll, the halls of Rikers Island are eerily empty as nearly one-third of the staff are out on leave or simply don’t show up to work. There is horrific documentation of the circumstances under which incarcerated people are forced to survive, from backed-up toilets spewing sewage, missed court dates because there are no corrections staff to escort people from the jail complex to their hearings, and failure to provide even the most basic services like meals, medical care, and mental health care. This crisis doesn’t impact all New Yorkers equally—close to 90 percent of the people at Rikers Island are Black or Latinx.

“My Day One Memo reflects my commitment to keeping New Yorkers safe. That safety extends to people behind bars. We cannot be bystanders to the humanitarian crisis unfolding at Rikers Island. We can both decarcerate to get people out of jail and out of harm's way and protect public safety in our communities. As District Attorney, my policy of a presumption of non-incarceration on most cases will lead to the kind of safe and effective decarceration we need to address the crisis in our city’s jails,” said Democratic candidate for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

The fears that decarcerating Rikers Island will compromise public safety are misguided and unsubstantiated and fly in the face of due process and the presumption of innocence. Just last year, to curb the spread of COVID-19, New York City rapidly and safely released 1,500 people from jail, saving lives behind bars and protecting public safety as well. By April 2020, the jail population had dropped to an all-time low of 3,800. Studies from that period found that decarceration did not lead to an uptick in crime. Rather, the housing, treatment, counseling, jobs, and financial support that the city’s service providers offered to people leaving Rikers Island improved the health and safety of our communities and undoubtedly saved lives in the face of COVID-19.

The steps taken to date by the District Attorneys have made little impact on the overall jail population since the crisis began over a month ago. This coalition urges the District Attorneys to adopt the three commonsense measures above to decarcerate Rikers Island.

“We cannot wait for yet another death before our city’s top law enforcement leaders take action. Many of our organizations have privately and publicly urged DAs Clark, Gonzalez, Katz, McMahon, and Vance to do more to address the crisis at Rikers Island. Today, we are publicly calling on them to, at a minimum, adopt the following recommendations,” wrote the coalition in the letter.

The signatories of the letter are:


Center for Court Innovation

College & Community Fellowship

Color of Change

Common Justice

Correctional Association of New York

Exodus Transitional Community

The Fortune Society

Freedom Agenda

Fountain House

Getting Out & Staying Out

Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice

Legal Action Center

A Little Piece of Light

National Action Network NYC Chapter Second Chances Committee

Osborne Association

Police Reform Organizing Project

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

Trinity Church Wall Street

Vera Institute of Justice

Women’s Community Justice Association

Women & Justice Project

Worth Rises

You can find the full text of the letter here.

About Vera Action

Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, the Vera Institute of Justice is a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. In early 2021, the Vera Institute of Justice launched an independent but closely aligned 501c(4)—Vera Action—to expand our capacity to shape and pass legislation and policy that prioritizes racial justice, transforms the criminal legal system, and delivers on a vision of a safer and more equitable country for everyone.

About Color of Change

Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. We help people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by 7 million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America. Our campaigns and initiatives win changes that matter. By designing strategies powerful enough to fight racism and injustice—in politics and culture, in the workplace and the economy, in criminal justice and community life, and wherever they exist—we are changing both the written and unwritten rules of society. We mobilize our members to end practices and systems that unfairly hold Black people back, and champion solutions that move us all forward.

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