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Photo courtesy of Lippman Commission report
Photo courtesy of Lippman Commission report
Some of the prisons on Rikers Island, with Queens and the Manhattan skyline in the background.

A report released this week suggests a possible fast track to lowering the prisoner population at Rikers Island so the complex can be closed for good, but two Queens leaders are continuing to push back against the findings.

The study released on July 10 by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform says that expanding the city’s supervised release program and increasing the number of suspects released on recognizance could lower the Rikers population by 2,000 inmates. Led by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, the commission is also responsible for releasing the 2017 report that recommended the closure of Rikers Island.

According to Lippman, a “huge portion” of people in jail are there simply because they can’t make bail, and the commission believes that jail should be a last resort.

“Supervised release can provide a meaningful alternative to bail that builds in appropriate accountability for defendants while also allowing them to be with their families, remain in school, and continue working,” Lippman said in a press release. “The time to act is now. By expanding supervised release and the number of defendants who are released on recognizance, we can send fewer people to jail, accelerate the timeline for closing Rikers, and ensure better outcomes for thousands of New Yorkers every year.”

The current supervised release program is administered by nonprofit agencies — in Queens, the New York City Criminal Justice Agency (CJA) — that review defendants’ cases for eligibility prior to arraignment. The be eligible for the program, a defendant must be charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony that does not involve domestic violence, have verifiable community ties and not have a high likelihood of being re-arrested for a felony as calculated by a risk assessment tool created by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

While participating in the program, defendants have to meet with a social worker one to four times per month, and the social worker reports back to the judge at each court appearance until the case is resolved.

First introduced as a pilot program in Queens in 2009, the program was then rolled out in Manhattan in 2013 before going into every borough in 2016 thanks to $17.8 million in funding from the de Blasio administration over the course of three years.

The latest expansion recommended by the Independent Commission would use supervised release as the “default option” for all misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases, allow some violent cases to enroll, educate judges and attorneys about the benefits of the program, identify barriers that inhibit the program and increase the use of release on recognizance. The study also notes that the city has expanded funding for supervised release to $12 million for the fiscal year 2019.

Queens County Senior Executive Assistant District Attorney James Quinn, on the other hand, expressed his concern over expanding supervised release on a call with QNS. He and Councilman Robert Holden have been some of the most vocal Queens officials to oppose the Independent Commission’s findings.

“The more expansive you make that, the more you get into the career criminals, and there’s no way you can do that without having an impact on public safety,” Quinn said. “In my office we have 25 to 30 programs we put people into so they don’t go into jail, and the ones in Rikers are the ones who have failed out or refused to go or have records that would make them dangerous to put into those programs.”

The Independent Commission notes in its report that 95 percent of all participants in supervised release programs in 2017 “avoided a felony re-arrest while participating.” A 2016 report from the CJA, however, notes that 27 percent of participants in Queens were re-arrested during their program.

Holden also refuted the new report, calling it a “playbook to make the streets less safe.” The councilman pointed out the subjective nature of court sentencing as problematic, saying that many judges are very lenient and there is no standard for defendants who pose a high risk of committing more crimes.

In May, Holden introduced legislation calling on the creation of a commission to study the cost of renovating Rikers Island to compare that with the cost of creating borough-based jails, and he gained support from Queens Councilmen Eric Ulrich and Paul Vallone.

The longtime civic activist referred back to a time when crime was out of control in the 1980s due to the drug epidemic and said that he remembered 30 “purse snatchings” taking place on Eliot Avenue in Middle Village over the course of a month. Where the city is now compared to then has been a complete turnaround, Holden said.

The councilman added he has no confidence that the study is well thought out if Lippman is in charge because “he is clueless about the reality of the streets.”

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