NY charity's plan to bail out Rikers inmates draws controversy
"If [bailing out inmates] is done without any discussion ... it's going to make New York City less safe," NYPD Commissioner O'Neill said
By Thomas Tracy And Jillian Jorgensen
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — Police Commissioner James O’Neill and Mayor de Blasio have reservations about a Kennedy family charity’s plan to bail out hundreds of teenagers and women awaiting trial on Rikers Island, they said Thursday.
The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights foundation plans to raise $5 million to post bail for all eligible 16- and 17-year old inmates — saying cash bail criminalizes poverty and leaves poor New Yorkers stranded on Rikers Island when wealthier people accused of crimes can post bail and await trial at home.
The move comes as many have pushed for reforms or an end to the cash bail system, with the case of Kalief Browder, who languished for years on Rikers Island because he could not pay his bail as he awaited trial for an ultimately dropped charge of stealing a book bag serving as a rallying cry. Browder died by suicide after being released from Rikers.
But while de Blasio has backed calls for bail reform, he said the charity ought to only extend its cash to those charged with nonviolent crimes — something he said he’d express to the charity.
“We’re certainly going to communicate our concerns, and I would argue their intention is noble, but they should focus on low-level and nonviolent offenders only,” de Blasio said.
O’Neill, too, said he was fine the charity’s effort to help people facing “low-level bail” — but said they should also consider the rights of crime victims.
"But we have to dig into who is eligible for bail on Rikers Island. We have to be real careful here,” O’Neill said. “I understand the concern, but we have people getting out that were involved in shootings, robberies, domestic violence and what about the victims? What about witness intimidation? What about retaliation? We don't want to do anything that will increase levels of violence in the city, so its important that we have those discussions before this is done in a blanket manner."
"If its done without any discussion, there's no doubt in my mind, it's going to make New York City less safe," he said.
De Blasio, meanwhile, said that despite his worries about the specific plan, this he did share the organization’s broader concern about those who cannot make bail.
“I think the impulse to say the people who have committed low level offenses, nonviolent offenses should not be in jail awaiting trial because of money, I think that’s a very fair concern,” he said. “And it parallels what we are trying to address in a much bigger way, which is the need for state legislation to reform the bail process and ensure that no one who commits those kinds of offenses is sitting in a jail only for economic reasons.’
District attorneys also sounded an alarm about the plan, noting fears among witnesses to and victims of crime.
“We are doing all we can to protect our victims and witnesses in the event the defendants accused of violence against them are released from jail,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark said. “It threatens public safety if there is no re-entry plan for defendants who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or homelessness, and who lack incentives to return to court if they have no accountability to the persons or organization posting the bail.”
Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez said he agreed with calls for changes to the bail system — and supported the “release of defendants who do not pose a risk to public safety.”
“We are currently in the process of reaching out to our victims and witnesses in those cases where bail will be posted to notify them and to ensure that all orders of protection are in place,” Gonzalez said.
Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. said he applauded the motives of the foundation but he, too, echoed O’Neill and de Blasio.
“Currently, there are certain individuals detained on Manhattan cases who, if released without a court-reviewed, pre-determined supervised release and safety plan, are flight risks and may pose a public safety risk to the community. Like the Mayor, we are urging the Foundation to consider and address those public safety concerns at the front end of its efforts, and stand ready to work with the Foundation to identify cases where bail assistance may be rendered without jeopardizing public safety,” Vance said.
- Prison Reform