Letter: Community Groups and Advocates Call on New York City’s Five District Attorneys to Act on Policy Recommendations to Decarcerate Rikers

There is an ongoing humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island. We, the undersigned organizations, urge the five sitting District Attorneys in New York City to use their unique authority and powers of discretion to decarcerate Rikers—reduce the city’s jail population—by forgoing bail, releasing people on their own recognizance, and fully utilizing the city's robust network of community-based providers and alternative to incarceration programs.

Despite weeks of media attention, the jail population continues to hover around 5,600—a close to 50 percent increase from earlier in the pandemic. Meanwhile, the conditions and level of support offered to those in New York City jails, especially Rikers Island, continue to deteriorate. Up to one-third of the corrections workforce is out on leave or simply does not show up to work. Incarcerated people’s basic needs, like access to medical care, food, hygiene supplies, and water, are routinely being denied. Some have been left in de facto lockdown for weeks at a time, unable to visit with loved ones or attend classes and programs. Close to one out of six people currently at Rikers Island have been incarcerated for longer than 600 days—an egregious violation of justice that undermines the presumption of innocence and any sense of due process. COVID-19 is still raging at Rikers Island, and incarcerated people are infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate, according to research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Last week, Victor Mercado, age 64 and in a wheelchair, died from COVID-19 just an hour after he was finally granted release following months of incarceration. This crisis disproportionately impacts New Yorkers of color: Close to 90 percent of the people at Rikers Island are Black or Latinx. All of these factors have contributed to the 14 deaths in the jails this year. 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:

  • Release everyone in jail facing low-level and nonviolent charges;
  • Rely on the city’s extensive network of community-based service providers and alternative to incarceration programs to individually review and consider release for everyone else; and
  • Stop requesting bail amounts that are well beyond what New Yorkers can afford.

These steps can be taken immediately while pursuing further reforms to ensure due process and the presumption of innocence for everyone. We estimate that if all five District Attorneys were to act, they could reduce the jail population overall by at least 2,000 people.

These measures are consistent with and, in fact, bolster community safety. Releasing people from Rikers Island is a vital and necessary tool in service of humanity and mitigating the city’s current public health crisis. Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, 1,500 people were released from New York City jails in response to COVID-19. 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 Rikers Island crisis has only grown since the onset of the pandemic. The obligation remains for district attorneys to use their power and discretion to save lives. We urge you to act now.

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
  • Freedom Agenda
  • The Fortune Society
  • 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 & Justice Project
  • Women’s Community Justice Association
  • Worth Rises