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Let’s Roll Back COVID-19, Not Bail Reform

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New Yorkers are facing the dual threat of unprecedented public health and economic crises.

It will likely take us months to fully stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus and far longer to address the devastating economic fallout.

With businesses across the city and state shuttered, hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their livelihoods and will need help from the local, state and federal government to make ends meet. Yet with an incomplete response from Washington and a new massive budget gap in Albany, it’s unclear where the resources will come from to support all New Yorkers in need.

We must look for savings everywhere we can. Fortunately, there is one source of budget relief staring us in the face: the bail reform law enacted last spring in Albany. A recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice shows that there are millions in savings to be had from reducing the population in our jails.

That’s one of the many compelling reasons why it’s critical we resist any rollbacks to bail reform. Even before the added dangers of COVID-19, locking someone up simply because they were too poor to make bail was inequitable and inhumane. Now, putting more people in jail at a time when the communicable disease unit on Rikers Island is at capacity is dangerous — both to the health and safety of those in custody and the correction officers and Correctional Health Services staff still working in our City jails. And it is also a waste of resources when we are going to need to put every dollar toward helping New Yorkers survive what may be the worst economic downturn we have ever witnessed.

Jail is incredibly expensive. The amount of money it takes to keep one person behind bars is staggering: according to Vera, New York counties spent $2.5 billion on operating and staffing jails in 2019.

Outside of New York City, Vera estimates that it costs just over $100,000 to incarcerate a single person for a year.

In New York City, that number is much higher. My office has estimated that it costs more than $337,000 per year to incarcerate someone on Rikers Island, — which equates to just over $920 per day. For that amount of money, you could send 55 New Yorkers to CUNY for a year on full scholarships.

And the dollars we are putting towards jails aren’t getting us any closer to enhancing public safety or strengthening our communities.

Research has shown that even two or three days in jail increases the likelihood of re-arrest, because it worsens the underlying factors that contribute to crime, violence and poverty. Jails lack sufficient health services to address the needs of the disproportionate number of individuals who suffer from mental health or substance use issues. In many places, we’re spending more on jail beds than mental health services. Yet it is 60–100% more expensive to jail people who have health, mental health, or substance use disorders. Pretrial supervision, on the other hand, costs less than $8 a day.

We will need billions of dollars in relief to respond to COVID-19 and its impacts, and it’s more imperative than ever we redirect money out of jails and towards our communities. Yet the rollbacks politicians in Albany are considering would likely put more people behind bars, which is the last thing we want to do in this moment from both a public health and fiscal standpoint.

Albany must reject these rollbacks so local governments can preserve their resources and put them towards relief efforts, including decarceration. For starters, we are going to need to support New Yorkers now facing mounting mortgage payments, rent, student debt and medical bills.

Our small businesses have already experienced significant losses, and entrepreneurs will need loans and relief from fines and taxes if we ever want them to get back on their feet.

And we are going to need to do this for a sustained period. It will take us a long time to dig out of this hole, and we need to start thinking about long-term strategies to ease the burden.

While reducing the number of people in jail, the City should also take immediate steps to address the conditions for those who remain, including expanding the provision of free personal hygiene and healthcare products, ending commissary price markups, and ensuring access to phone calls and other means of communication with family and friends.

COVID-19 is forcing a critical public reckoning on who we subject to jail time and for how long. Technical parole violators across the state have already been released, but it makes no sense to continue pushing policies that would only worsen the fiscal and public health emergencies that confront us — and add to the humanitarian crisis now unfolding on Rikers Island.

Let’s protect our hard-fought bail reforms and put money in the pockets of friends, family and neighbors who are desperate for help.

Written by

NYC Comptroller. Proud lifelong New Yorker. Working for a better city for all. Dad to two great kids.

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