With hundreds of confirmed cases in state and city facilities, lawmakers on both levels are taking measures to reduce prison populations and protect those remaining in jails.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has been among those calling on law enforcement to lower the jail population by halting the arrest of mild offenders and discharging incarcerated persons most susceptible to infection.
Governor Andrew Cuomo disclosed the release of nearly 1,100 state inmates locked up for "low-level technical violations" of their parole conditions on MSNBC last Friday.
On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed that 650 vulnerable detainees have been let out of city jails.
Expressing concern for elevated risks, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, which acquired 25,000 N-95 masks for its members last week, is also calling for a dedicated novel coronavirus testing center on Rikers Island.
The proposal was supported by more than half of the City Council in a letter to the mayor.
In the same moment the focus is on what is happening inside prisons, advocates for criminal justice reform are bringing attention to a pressing issue that would affect those on the outside.
The governor is currently considering State Senate proposals for roll backs on the state’s recent bail reform enacted at the top of the year.
Potential tweaks to the laws, which include allowing judges discretion over the pretrial incarceration of individuals deemed “persistent offenders,” would be made as a part of the state’s expedited budget due on April 1.
At a virtual town hall discussing the urgent need to preserve bail reform, Assemblywoman Latrice Walker of Brooklyn spoke about the risks of going backward, particularly during an ongoing public health crisis.
“It doesn’t make sense for us to be having this conversation period,” said Walker. “If we’re taking a stance as a city and state to release people who have committed low-level offenses and people who are medically vulnerable, then how do we reconcile a policy that incarcerates all of those individuals?”
Led by Monifa Bandele of MomsRising and Anthonine Pierre of Brooklyn Movement Center, the rally brought together women of color from across the state, including impacted mothers and representatives from local activist organizations.
Panelists highlighted the irresponsibility exhibited by lawmakers attempting to reverse parts of bail reform that has kept an estimated 7,000 New Yorkers out of county jails daily.
“Mass incarceration has always been, but is now more than ever, a public health crisis,” said Clarise McCants of Color of Change. “We know that jails don’t trap disease, they spread it, both among the incarcerated population and beyond.”
According to an analysis by Legal Aid Society, the COVID-19 infection rate at Rikers Island is more than seven times greater than the citywide rate, and more than 73 times greater than the rate for the entire nation.
“There’s overcrowding, poor sanitation, pest infestations,” McCants continued, “all of which make these cages incubators for disease.”
McCants called the idea to impose judge discretion “foolish,” noting that rather than increase safety, the regulation would open up the opportunity for race to replace poverty as a proxy for detention.
“Instead of locking people up because they’re too poor to pay bail, judges will trap people in jail because of how they look and their own perceptions of them,” she explained, recalling disparities in the era before reforms that saw white people more likely to be released pretrial than black people by 9 percent in the city and 20 percent in counties elsewhere in the state.
“We ask why the rights of black and brown people have to be continually questioned, revisited and revised,” questioned Charis Humphery of Black Love Resists in the Rust Buffalo.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has largely been credited with holding the line on bail reform, consistently declaring his unwillingness to undo legislation without sufficient data to do so. Tremaine Wright, chair of the Assembly’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, expressed the group’s support of those efforts.
“We are very firm that we do not want to see rollbacks,” said the Brooklyn assemblywoman at last week’s town hall. “And we do not understand how after less than 90 days, we have the information necessary to make changes to a law.”