Three House Democrats sent a letter to the Big Apple’s five district attorneys Monday demanding answers on how they use cash bail, saying it’s contributing to the ongoing “humanitarian crisis” on Rikers Island.
The letter, sent by Manhattan Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Bronx Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, said the lawmakers have “grave concerns that excessive bail amounts” are forcing detainees to languish in unsafe city lockups simply because they cannot afford to pay.
“High bail amounts lead to a two-tiered system of justice, with those who can afford bail being able to escape the inhumane conditions at pretrial detention facilities such as Rikers Island while those who cannot afford bail are forced to remain,” the letter stated.
“Over the last few months, conditions on Rikers Island have deteriorated drastically, raising concerns about the safety and security of staff and detainees. Overcrowding and staffing shortages on the island have led to violent incidents within Rikers Island facilities, calling into question whether anyone can be safely held there without immediate changes.”
The Post recently revealed the dire conditions inside a since-closed intake facility on Rikers Island where detainees were crammed body to body in squalid conditions for days on end — and forced to relieve themselves in plastic bags.
Since last April, the jail population on Rikers has skyrocketed to about 5,400 and amid a staffing crunch plaguing the jail, detainees have had reduced access to medical care, recreational activities and other programs, the representatives noted in the letter. There’ve also been 14 in-custody deaths so far this year, six of which were suicides.
They blamed the overcrowding in part on city prosecutors “who continue to seek excessive cash bail” and want each office to seek new bail hearings and release detainees who are charged with misdemeanors or non-violent felonies and those who have increased health risks.
“Condemning thousands of individuals to languish in an environment plagued by persistent overcrowding and mounting violence as they await trial is not acceptable and risks violating the federal civil rights of these individuals,” the reps wrote.
“If these conditions are not addressed, federal intervention may be necessary to protect detainees from additional harm,” the letter warned.
Each DA has until Dec. 10 to send a response to a series of questions, including what steps each office has taken to reduce the jail population, how processing delays are being addressed and what criteria are examined when determining which defendants are eligible for supervised release.
In response, the Manhattan DA’s Office said it is reviewing the letter and will respond but noted it has already taken measures to reduce the jail population by asking prosecutors to no longer request bail in certain non-violent cases and by releasing more than two dozen defendants facing felony charges.
The Staten Island DA’s Office said it is reviewing the letter. Representatives for the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn DAs didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
The Democrats’ letter follows a similar one sent last month on behalf of elected officials and public defenders in New York.
In January 2020, the New York Legislature overhauled the bail system, eliminating cash bail for the majority of non-violent offenses. The measure was rolled back months later to include more crimes and conditions in which bail could be imposed.