Rikers crisis: Federal judge orders sweeping changes at beleaguered city jails

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THE BRONX, N.Y. — A federal court judge ordered sweeping changes for Rikers Island and other New York City jails on Wednesday amid a humanitarian crisis within the system.

The order requires the city to implement a 24-hour cap for housing people in intake facilities, which would help reduce inhumane conditions caused by overcrowding. The city will be required to track and report to the court how long people have stayed in these facilities.

Additionally, the city was ordered to provide the court with an interim security plan that addresses Department of Correction staff who abandon their posts while on-duty; failure to lock doors; and failure to supervise inmates in custody.

The city will also need to create a new hiring process that allows people from outside the DOC to be brought into facility leadership positions. Currently, only DOC staff can be promoted into these positions.

A timeline with several deadlines was put in place for the city to report its progress on these changes, among others outlined in the court order.

Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society, called the order a “necessary and important step.”

“And if the city is unable to comply with this order and show immediate improvements to safety and security in the jail, we will be back in court as often as is necessary to hold the de Blasio administration accountable,” Luongo said. “We will continue to use every tool we have to protect our clients. Lastly, this order should not supplant the need to decarcerate local jails, and we again call on Gov. Kathy Hochul, de Blasio and local district attorneys to prioritize that effort.”

Criminal justice advocates have been sounding the alarm about conditions at Rikers for years. Now, the situation seems to have finally captured the attention of all necessary players, from elected officials, to prosecutors, and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I’m very focused on addressing the situation on Rikers,” the mayor said Wednesday.

Alice Fontier, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, said the conditions at the city’s intake facilities were untenable.

“People have been languishing and crammed into these cells in dangerous conditions for days and sometimes weeks,” Fontier said.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance also announced changes — a new three-part directive sent to assistant district attorneys.

The memo reads, in part:

“We will not ask for monetary bail, for the time being, when:

  1. The instant crime is legally and factually non-violent, and does not implicate domestic violence or other risk of physical harm to a person.
  2. The defendant is not a violent predicate felon, and does not have sex crimes or violent misdemeanor convictions within the last 10 years.
  3. The defendant has not failed to appear on the instant case.

All three criteria must be met for our new policy to apply.”

Vance’s office said it understands releasing some individuals may lead to more lower level crime.

However, Fontier said the new directive is unreasonably strict.

“The exceptions effectively swallow the rule. Very few people will be eligible for it,” she said.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office noted that in some instances, it intends to ask for supervised release and other non-monetary conditions.

A request for comment from the Department of Correction was not immediately returned on Wednesday.

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