The city’s District Attorneys have expressed serious misgivings about Mayor de Blasio’s prisoner-release efforts, saying that some inmates who have been turned loose pose risks to public safety.
In a letter addressed to the Mayor and Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann, the five DAs and the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor said that while they support the large-scale releases to limit the spread of the coronavirus within Rikers Island and other jails, officials must exercise more prudence.
'A High Risk'
More than 900 inmates have since been released, with possibly several hundred more set to be released in the coming days.
Since about the third week in March, lists of inmates thought to be suitable for release have been sent to the prosecutors and state officials for review. They included those sentenced to a year or less, generally for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies; technical parole violators; pretrial detainees; and inmates over 70 years old who had any number of pre-existing conditions.
But some within those categories included inmates “who pose a high risk to public safety,” the DAs contend. And although they had expressed their unease, “these concerns have not always been heeded,” the letter said.
For example, they cited the assurance they received that the releases of hundreds of inmates serving “city sentences” of a year or less would not include individuals jailed for domestic violence or sex offenses.
Say Some Were Released
“Unfortunately, we later learned that such individuals were indeed included in the ranks of those to be released,” they wrote. It was unclear how many of those released included persons convicted of those offenses.
“Even at this difficult time, our society must have the ability to safeguard those who are incarcerated, to avoid violating their rights or endangering the community,” the letter said. “In short, we should not have to make release decisions that we know will put communities at risk.”
The DAs said there appeared to have been too little attention given to where the inmates would live and how they would be supervised. They also expressed concern about how those who were released would have their support and service needs met.
“At this point, the seemingly haphazard process by which at-risk inmates are identified, and the reports that those released may include violent offenders, are creating a public perception that our city's jails may be incapable of providing sufficient health care for the remaining population of inmates,” the prosecutors wrote.
The DAs appealed to the Mayor and Ms. Brann to “immediately reassure the public and the courts” that jail authorities can manage the health of the remaining prisoners in accordance to recent guidelines issued by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rebuked as Naive
That demand, though, drew a sharp rebuttal from the Chief Medical Officer with Correctional Health Services. In a series of tweets March 30, Dr. Ross MacDonald painted the DAs' contention as naive in the face of what he characterized as “a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen.”
Dr. MacDonald said that request reflected the DAs’ "failure to appreciate the public-health disaster unfolding before our eyes.”
“I cannot reassure you of something you only wish to be true,” he wrote, before continuing:
“I can’t presume to tell you how to do your job, but neither should you presume to be experts in correctional health or corrections. I am raising this alarm for a reason. I simply ask that in this time of crisis the focus remain on releasing as many vulnerable people as possible.”
Neither the DOC nor the Mayor’s Office responded to requests for comment on the prosecutors’ concerns and demands.
In a joint statement issued April 1, the Board of Correction’s former Interim Chairwoman, Jacqueline Sherman, and its incoming Chairwoman, Jennifer Jones Austin, commended the District Attorneys and city and state officials for securing the release of the inmates "as a part of an important effort to return as many people as possible and appropriate under the circumstances to their communities, and to reduce the population in the jails to allow for improved separation.”
They said the BOC, a nine-member watchdog panel, would “continue to monitor and report on the response to this crisis to provide necessary information to the public.”
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