Release of violent offenders from jail during COVID outbreak is a mistake (commentary)

By: 
Staten Island District Attorney Michael E. McMahon

From the outset, my office has been committed to working with the administration in good faith to identify Staten Island defendants at Rikers Island who are at advanced risk of contracting COVID-19. When this process began, we were asked to consider consenting to release of those convicted of non-violent, non-domestic violence, and non-sexual abuse related offenses with a short time remaining on their sentence. In several instances, we were able to identify individuals who had little time left in their sentences and posed minimal risk to public safety and did give our consent to early release. In other instances, we have been actively working with defense counsel and the court to expeditiously connect detainees with treatment facilities who can serve their serious substance use and mental health needs outside of Rikers either as part of a plea or while they await trial.

But, less than one week later, and in large measure without consent from the DAs, Mayor de Blasio and the state have ordered the release of NYC inmates en masse. Many are being released equipped with cab fare, cell phones, and a key to a hotel room, regardless of the crime they committed or their current health condition. Ironically, few if any of these resources have ever been made available to the victims of crime who are also at risk, especially domestic violence survivors in women’s shelters or children being cared for in foster homes.

We are told these defendants will be monitored by supervised release in lieu of work release. It must be noted that supervised release, in the age of COVID-19, entails the released individual making sporadic phone contact with a community provider. Should the released inmate fail to make those phone calls, there will be no attempt to re-arrest them because Supervised Release is currently not reporting non-compliance. Surely, this program more closely resembles un-supervised release.

 

Tragically, this is another example of the plight and suffering of crime victims being utterly dismissed by Twitter activists and the elected officials who they have co-opted. Instead, these so called-criminal justice reform advocates have now demanded for the outright release of those convicted or pending trial on violent crimes including homicide, rape, and sexual abuse of children. Sadly, the mayor and his administration have continued to ignore the advice of district attorneys’ offices, choosing instead to pander to these defense attorney-led groups, and have now pressured the DA’s to review and consent to the release of defendants charged with these serious crimes as well.

 

It is time to stand up and say: Enough is enough.

 

COVID-19 has created a public health emergency in New York, and at the worst possible moment, this approach will create a public safety crisis as well.

 

In a city with our resources, and a jail population lower than it has been in 70 years, the only solution to coronavirus at Rikers cannot be: Release everyone.

 

Governor Cuomo is constructing emergency hospitals across the state to serve the expected influx of New Yorkers who will contract COVID-19. Not once was a similar strategy, or even simpler measures to protect inmates and Corrections staff, including the re-opening of previously shuttered buildings on Rikers Island to allow for social distancing, seriously advocated for.

 

Why does no one expect or demand that the city provide those on Rikers with quality medical care? Why is it a better idea to release individuals who are a risk to public safety — many of whom have underlying health conditions, no stable housing, and no health insurance — into the general public where they will be just as likely to contract or possibly spread coronavirus, and further burden our already over-stretched healthcare facilities amid this crisis?

 

My number one priority as Staten Island’s district attorney is to keep our residents safe. This effort runs wholly counter to that mission, and undoubtedly puts the safety and health of the public at risk, especially at a time when 10% of the NYPD workforce has already contracted the virus, a number that is certain to rise.

 

At a time when our city is struggling to serve those already diagnosed with COVID-19, with tens of thousands more cases to come, it is truly unfathomable that the “advocates” continue to demand that the mayor and the governor take the easy way out, and completely obviate their responsibility to the law-abiding people of this state by releasing these individuals back into our city.