Where are District Attorneys in the effort to close Rikers?

Janos Marton
Oct 2 · 4 min read

This morning I was set to give the following testimony before the City Council:

Public Testimony Regarding T2019–5171 & T2019–5172

Thank you Chairpersons Levin and Powers, and to the other members of the General Welfare and Criminal Justice Committees. My name is Janos Marton, and I am speaking on the issues before this committee having worked on decarceration in New York and across the country for many years, including the effort to close Rikers. Most people in this room want Rikers Island closed as soon as possible. Everyone agrees that there can be no meaningful criminal justice reform without significant community investments in neighborhoods that have been underserved and over-policed for decades. And everyone in this room believes that Mayor de Blasio has failed to lead throughout this process.

But today I want to focus on a group of people who, remarkably, have been left out of this conversation, and off the hook for the challenging moment we’re in: New York City’s five district attorneys.

They have been conspicuously absent from the debate over closing Rikers these past few years, especially given their continuing role in sending so many New Yorkers to jail.

If all five NYC district attorneys committed to an 80% reduction in their borough jail populations, we could close Rikers and the Boat without building new jails. Here’s how we could get there:

  1. Use jail only in extreme circumstances, especially not for people struggling with mental health issues, addiction, and young people.
  2. Properly implement the pretrial detention reforms passed by the #FREEnewyork campaign in Albany this spring. The Center for Court Innovation is projecting 2,300 fewer people in NYC jails from to bail reform alone — and that’s before calculating the yet unknown benefits of partially secured bonds, and without calculating the benefits of improvements to speedy trial and discovery laws. Assuming, of course, that DAs don’t try to play games with these reforms in the courtroom.
  3. Support robust parole reform at the state legislature in 2020, to take effect immediately upon passage. With more than 700 people at Rikers right now for technical parole violations, even modest reforms could lower the daily population by hundreds.
  4. Avoid sending anyone to Rikers on a misdemeanor sentence, effectively bringing the City sentenced population to zero. If someone is going to be in jail for a month or two, they likely don’t present a public safety threat to the community, and would be better served by completing a program in their community.

These are simply a few suggestions — there are many creative ways we can work together as a city and state to reduce the jail population. But if we act in concert, we don’t have to wait until 2026, we can see a massive drop in our jail population as soon as next spring.

I’m going to speak on two bills before the Council today that can help us get there.

First, Councilmember Ayala’s legislation, 5171, would set timelines for the City to report on progress towards decarceration and closing individual jails on Rikers Island. I would encourage Councilmember Ayala to amend the bill to include two additional reporting requirements — first, track the ongoing jail population by borough of arrest, so we can monitor policing and prosecutorial practices by borough. This information is tracked, but usually very out of date, which is not useful. Second, track the jail population by charge in a format that is digestible to the public, so we know which forms of intervention will be most helpful to keeping people out of jail.

Next, Councilmember Levin’s legislation, 5172. I am agnostic as to whether another commission or the General Welfare Committee itself is best positioned to address community reinvestment, but this I’m sure of: if the City is ready to spend billions on new jails, it better be ready to spend billions on community investments, starting with next year’s City budget. We cannot waste another year. This bill currently asks for a community investment report every April, at which point annual City budgets are largely set; that date should be amended to the end of December so it can inform the budget.

We need massive investments, and we need them now, starting this year, and we need them funded fully by the City Council, so that programs doing important community work don’t have to rely on DA Vance’s capricious slush fund for financial survival.

Last year the New York City budget allocated more than $400 million in funding to the five New York City District Attorney offices. I would urge this Council to withhold funding from any District Attorney’s office that doesn’t demonstrate a clear commitment to decarceration. As for the rest of us, we must demand that the five DA’s commit to an 80% decarceration goal, or we’ll have to find different District Attorneys.

I’ll close with this: In yesterday’s op-ed, Judge Lippman and Speaker Johnson defended the existing plan with one of my favorite quotes from President Kennedy, that we choose to undertake these challenges, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

But President Kennedy was talking about putting a human being on the moon, not building a jail. The real challenge of our generation, is whether we can end our appalling use of jails and prisons. That is a challenge I hope that we are all willing to accept, unwilling to postpone, and intend to win.

Janos Marton

Written by

Criminal justice advocate. Democratic Candidate For Manhattan District Attorney.

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