New York Defense Attorneys Blast Judges, Prosecutors For Rash Of Deaths In Custody

New York lawyers who represent criminal defendants read out the names of 12 people who have died so far this year while detained in New York City’s collapsing jail system.

As part of a collective outcry over the mounting death toll at the city’s notorious Rikers Island temporary detention facility, the scene was repeated at all five criminal courthouses across New York City on Monday

The lawyers, loosely organized in the group “5 Boro Defenders,” started their court sessions with a detailed rundown of the 12 deaths, including COVID-19-related fatalities, unattended medical emergencies and suicides, several of which occurred at Rikers, which is plagued by severe understaffing. One in five guards are using sick leave to avoid showing up, reported the NY Post

The attorneys' list did not include released prisoners who later died of COVID-19 contracted while in the city’s jails. 

"Sending anyone to a city jail at this time is a potential death sentence,” defense attorney Amanda Jack told Benzinga.

Jack and her legal team provided city officials with “hundreds” of names of non-violent offenders who should be considered for early release given the severe overcrowding at Rikers. “They haven’t released more than 1%,” said Jack, a public defender at the Legal Aid Society of New York.

While cannabis arrests dropped significantly after weed was legalized in March, people of color made up 94% of marijuana arrests by NYPD in 2020 and some of them are still sitting in Rikers, such as parolee Travis Simon, who was sent back to jail after he tested positive for marijuana

What Is Upcharging?

Lawyers denounced the ongoing practice of “upcharging” defendants by prosecutors, in which district attorneys pile on numerous charges over a single offense while also increasing their severity.

Judges can then impose cash bail, which defendants often cannot provide. They are then incarcerated, sometimes for months, to await trial.

None of the deceased memorialized in Monday’s action had been convicted of the crimes for which they were being detained, said Jack.

Changing Bail Laws

New York liberalized bail requirements last year in a major victory for criminal justice reformers. Yet shortly after the new law took effect, police and some public figures denounced what they said was a new crime wave caused by offenders being released under the more permissive terms.

The state then rolled back the reform and restored some judicial authority to require cash bail.

Courthouse Protests

The Manhattan courtroom where Jack read out her denunciation provided a prompt example, as the day's first case involved a man who was accused of stealing blankets from a store — normally a third-degree robbery meriting supervised release. The assistant DA increased the charge to a first-degree felony because the defendant allegedly threatened the store owner with physical harm.

Cash bail was imposed, and the accused, an indigent man living in a shelter, was sent to Rikers.

Photo courtesy of Tim Frasca.

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Posted In: CannabisNewsLegalMarketsInterviewGeneralAmanda JackCriminal Justice Reformnew yorkRikers Island
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