CATCH AND RELEASE: The expansion of the city’s supervised-release program, beginning June 1, to include some young defendants charged with felonies involving a firearm, is another effort at reducing the jail population, a cornerstone policy initiative of Mayor de Blasio’s second term.

Starting June 1, some 18- and 19-year-olds charged with first- or second-degree assault, robbery or burglary—all of which could involve the display or use of a weapon—will be eligible for no-bail supervised release following policy changes by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Eighteen and 19-year-olds charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies will also be eligible for pre-trial release.

The program, called Youth Engagement Track, was previously open citywide to just 16- and 17-year-olds who were charged with assault or robbery in the second degree or with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies and classified as “high risk.”

‘Hell-Bent on Destruction’

The supervised-release program, launched citywide in 2016, was recently fine-tuned so as to reduce defendants considered “high risk,” including adults, according to a May 13 memorandum by the OCJ’s Executive Director of Diversion Initiatives, Miriam Popper.

The program’s expansion and modification “should more than triple the number of defendants” eligible for the Youth Engagement Track, according to the OCJ.

The initiative was roundly criticized by the president of the Police Benevolent Association, who suggested that the move was nothing more than a presidential electoral ploy by the Mayor.

“Pandering for votes during his quest for the presidency, Mayor de Blasio seems to be hell-bent on the destruction of civilized society in NYC,” Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “Releasing teens who have committed armed robberies or serious assaults flies in the face of every police officer working to fight crime. We risk our lives to protect the citizens of the city while pandering politicians do everything possible to fight our success. ‘Progress’ like this will doom this city and crash its economy by making our streets dangerous once again.”

Counting on Counseling

According to the OCJ, though, the program’s expansion reduces threats through a “work-to-change” framework whereby defendants are placed in pretrial-prevention programs, and referred to substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, housing resources and vocational training, as well as reminded of upcoming court dates. They must also adhere to a strict supervision schedule.

Program participants must also take part in short-term psychological counseling. Suitability for supervised release is determined by a judge. The Office of Criminal Justice said participants in the program formerly thought of as high-risk perform just as well as defendants charged with less-serious crimes, with 94 percent making every scheduled court appearance and 92 percent not being rearrested on violent-felony charges.

The decision to expand eligibility for supervised release was made through a steering committee comprising judges, public defenders and district attorneys from each borough, according to Ms. Popper’s memorandum.

The program’s expansion is continuance of Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to decrease the jail population, and eventually shutter the Rikers Island jail complex, by reducing cash bail and decriminalizing some infractions.

Supervised release redirected more than 4,000 jail admissions last year, according to a recent OJC report and has been recommended for about 12,300 defendants since its citywide inception. The program has been underway in Queens since 2009.

'Not a Threat'

During an unrelated press conference May 28, Mayor de Blasio said the program’s expansion represented a “real alternative to incarceration,” particularly for younger defendants.

“We’ve had so many people who languished in jail because they couldn’t afford bail, and that was unfair,” he said. “There are so many people who are not a threat, who should not be held simply because they can't afford the bail.”

He reiterated his call for state legislators to grant judges more leeway in determining the suitability of pre-trial release of defendants considered a low threat.

Councilman Rory Lancman, an advocate of criminal-justice reform and a candidate for Queens District Attorney, said he was encouraged by the program’s growth.

“We have to get away from the model of locking up every person no matter their age...before they’ve had the opportunity to have their case decided,” he said. Mr. Lancman added that the number and quality of services available to those accepted into supervised release ensures that the public is no more at risk than if the defendants were behind bars.

“Young people in particular have no business being on Rikers Island,” he said.

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