EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced in partnership with The Appeal.
Throughout October, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights foundation will be working to bail out hundreds of people from New York City’s jails. The organization originally planned to target two facilities in the city’s sprawling Rikers Island jail complex: “Rosie’s,” or the Rose M. Singer Center, which detains women, and the troubled Robert N. Davoren Complex, which had held boys ages 16-17. As of Monday, the city had moved the teens to a juvenile facility to comply with the state’s “Raise the Age” law, although they appear to remain as eligible for bail as before. That leaves roughly 250 women who are eligible for bail in Rosie’s, and fewer than 100 teenagers who are eligible in the new location.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, law-enforcement officials quickly assailed the proposal. The president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Elias Husamudeen, immediately raised the specter of those released committing crimes while on bail, as did four of the five elected district attorneys in New York City (Michael McMahon of Staten Island weighed in later). The prosecutors all suggested that the bailout was jeopardizing witnesses and victims, with Queens DA Richard Brown simply saying, “It is clearly a threat to public safety.”
Such an aggressive response by law enforcement to what is ultimately a small-scale proposal is completely predictable. Their arguments, however, are deeply problematic.
Let’s just start with the fact that New York is one of four states in the country where prosecutors and judges cannot take a defendant’s likelihood of committing another crime into account when setting bail, which is intended solely to ensure appearance at trial. So when Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesperson says the mayor supports bailing out those who “don’t pose a public safety risk,” she is essentially admitting that the mayor’s office is okay with using a defendant’s poverty to circumvent the state’s bail law.
Now, to be clear, Bronx DA Darcel Clark is correct when she says that there could be some public-safety risk from releasing someone from Rikers without any sort of reentry plan. But the solution is not to capitalize on defendants’ poverty and use bail to (illegally) lock them up—not only because doing so violates New York’s bail statute, but because Rikers is itself a dangerous and violent place.
At the same time, it is important that any solution not be counterproductive. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, for example, is encouraging witnesses and victims to get orders of protection against those being bailed out. But as public defenders are quick to explain, such orders often fail to reflect the messy, intertwined nature of violence in the city, and they can push defendants into homelessness and unemployment, which might actually make things riskier.