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REDUCING POPULATION AT RIKERS ISLAND IS THE NECESSARY FIRST STEP FOR REFORM

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We are encouraged that the New York City Council is discussing issues of brutality and neglect on Rikers Island and is seeking to hold accountable the public and private officials tasked with managing these facilities. It seems there is widespread agreement that the status quo in City jails is untenable. However, we are concerned efforts for reform will fall short if City Government continues to avoid addressing the primary driver of many of these problems – too many admissions to jails in the first place.

Read more on our Huffington Post Blog

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CONNECTING THE DOTS: THE ENTIRE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM IS IN NEED OF AN OVERHAUL

The recent in media coverage of the abuses of law enforcement and corrections department staff elicit a range of emotions, particularly among those of us working in the criminal justice system who hear about and witness these incidents on a daily basis. On the one hand, the gut-wrenching depictions of violence — of Department of Correction guards punching into unconsciousness an already handcuffed person or of NYPD officers choking a man to death without any apparent evidence of resistance — brings one to the edge of despair in contemplation of the devastation such practices bring to New Yorkers and their families, many of them among the most vulnerable residents in our city — homeless, indigent, drug-addicted, mentally ill. Yet on the other hand, the sober and extensive coverage of these issues in the mainstream press gives us hope that our society, our city, may be on the cusp of demanding long-needed change.  Read More at Huffington Post

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POLICYMAKERS MUST INCLUDE INCARCERATED PEOPLE IN JAIL REFORM PROCESS

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The New York City Council is investigating mental health services and violence on Rikers Island and in other city jails as recent media reports have renewed the public’s interest on this topic. At a recent oversight hearing conducted by the council, mayoral officials, union leaders, corrections officers, civilians working in city jails and other advocates testified to their experiences. Notably absent from the discussion were people with personal experience inside the cell blocks; with 120,000 people each year churning through city jails — over 1 million over the past ten years — it seemed incongruous that the Criminal Justice and Mental Health Committees of the City Council had not included these voices. The City Council legal department has declined to provide us with the list of official invitees to the hearing.

More than 75 percent of the people on Rikers Island and in other city jails are not in custody due to a conviction. They are in jail on bail, sometimes as low as $250, because they cannot afford to meet this cash obligation. According to the Criminal Justice Agency, just 12 percent of people accused of misdemeanors are able to post bail at arraignments. Prosecutorial requests for bail and the choice to insist on cash bail when other options are legally viable, is a matter of public policy. And so we have decided to place people accused of the most minor of crimes in jail solely because they have been locked out of the social and economic resources and opportunities that would otherwise enable them to post a couple of hundred dollars as collateral. A recent Vera Institute report on the Manhattan District Attorney’s office found that race plays a significant factor in making bail determinations.

A homeless man arrested for trespassing, like Jerome Murdough who unable to pay $2500 bail subsequently died in a Rikers Island solitary confinement cell, is more likely to be held in city jails than a Bernie Madoff, a Richard Haste, a John Gotti. And it is these indigent people who are subjected to solitary confinement and other abuses in city jails.

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The following narratives have been collected by Brooklyn Defender Services‘ Jail Services. Our hope is that their voices will be included as the City moves toward policy changes that will most directly impact those people in our city who are accused of committing specific categories of crimes and unable to afford bail. In addition to these three stories, there are literally thousands of others, which thus far have gone unheard to most of the public. Names, dates and identifying information have been necessarily changed to prevent retaliation against those clients who may remain in City custody.

Read More

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BROOKLYN DISTRICT ATTORNEY KEN THOMPSON TO DROP MARIJUANA CHARGES

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson recently announced his intention to stop prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests, a proposal he described as in the interest of justice. Brooklyn Defender Services staff rallied with other advocates such as VOCAL-NY and the Drug Policy Alliance to push Thompson to make good on his plan, which, if implemented, will reduce the single most-common arrest in New York City.  Low-level marijuana arrests are a key entry-point for many young people into the criminal legal system and too often are accompanied by the life-long consequences of a criminal record.

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DO THE CRIME, DO THE TIME? THE FAILED POLICIES OF PERMANENT PUNISHMENT

It’s time to eliminate the so-called collateral consequences of criminal convictions — the known and unknown penalties that follow people convicted of crimes, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The American Bar Association has compiled a national list of 38,000 collateral sanctions that people involved in various ways with the criminal legal system face on top of their court mandated sentences. There are more than 2,200 such penalties in New York state alone, extending to nearly every facet of daily life — employment, licensers, property rights, contracts, citizenship, education, voting, housing and family or domestic rights.

Read More at Huffington Post

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SNAIL-PACED REFORMS AT CITY JAILS ARE UNACCEPTABLE

Every year more than 300,000 people are arrested in New York City and roughly 100,000 people cycle through the city jail system at a cost to the taxpayer of $167,731 per incarcerated person per year. Most people held on Rikers Island and other borough specific facilities — 75 percent — are awaiting the disposition of their cases and are, thus by law, innocent.  More