As New York City Jail Deaths Mount, Hochul Vows To Review Decarceration Bill

Amidst a spate of deaths at Rikers Island in recent weeks, New York Governor Kathy Hochul vowed to review a bill that would stop sending people to jail for technical parole violations, such as missed curfews or marijuana use. The legislature passed the “Less Is More Act” in June, and criminal justice reform advocates are hoping the new state executive will sign it. 

“I will absolutely take a serious look at that. I am very concerned about what is going on in our city jails, without a doubt,” Hochul said at a press conference on Wednesday in response to a question about the bill. “The conditions are inhumane, substandard and not acceptable in the State of New York.”

Hochul’s promise comes on the heels of three fatalities at Rikers Island since August, and a recent investigation from WNYC/Gothamist and The City, which found that rates of self-harm exploded in city jails over the last year as the jail population surged and detainees contended with slashed services and deteriorating conditions. 

The bill was sponsored by Brian Benjamin, the former state senator who was sworn in as Hochul’s hand-picked lieutenant governor on Thursday morning. The legislation would also give residents legal counsel when they are accused of violating their conditions of release and shorten parole periods for those who follow the rules.

The legislation would not go into effect until March of 2022. In the meantime, to shrink the surging city jail population, some Democratic lawmakers are also calling on Hochul to direct correctional authorities to release technical parole violators using their own discretionary authority. 

“We have failed to ensure the safety of all incarcerated people, and inaction is no longer an option,” State Senator Alexandra Biaggi, a state senator representing the Bronx and Westchester, said. “New York State and the City must work in collaboration to immediately reduce the number of incarcerated individuals on Rikers Island and ensure no individual is forced to live in the current conditions.”

“Let’s be clear, Rikers Island is one of the most violent detention centers in our country,” Donna Hylton, president and founder of a Little Piece of Light, a group campaigning for the bill, said. “Why should we have people sitting there when they don’t need to be?”

As of 2019, technical parole violators accounted for a sizable percentage of new admissions to state prisons. But the number of people being held in New York City jails for such infractions is fairly small, accounting for less than 5% of the system’s roughly 6,000 detainees. 

Data collected by the Vera Institute shows that most people in city jails are being held there pre-trial due to pending criminal charges.

“The people who can make the most change immediately are the actors in the criminal court. That’s the prosecutors and the judges,” Steve Zeidman, a law professor at the City University of New York, said. “They have to consider ‘Why are we setting bail in the first place? How is it justifiable in particular now?’” he continued, referring to the crisis in city jails.

At a press conference on Thursday, Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi noted that he is reaching out to administrative judges and prosecutors to process cases faster to address the jails’ overcrowding

According to the Vera Institute’s compilation of city data, nearly 60% of people incarcerated in city jails are Black. Nearly half of detainees are reported to have mental health needs.

Gwynne Hogan contributed reporting for this story.