Crisis At Rikers: How NYC Judges Fueled An Increase In The City’s Jail Population

Crisis At Rikers: How NYC Judges Fueled An Increase In The City’s Jail Population

This text is a part of a joint reporting challenge from Gothamist/WNYC and New York Focus, an investigative information website on state and metropolis politics. Join their e-newsletter right here.

Brandon Rodriguez might need been alive immediately if he’d had about $1,000.

On August ninth, the 25-year-old Rikers detainee had his felony home violence expenses downgraded to a bundle of violations and misdemeanors. However that didn’t get him out of jail. At a courtroom listening to that day, Decide Ann Thompson imposed a $10,000 bond, 8.6% of which he would have needed to give you to go residence.

Paying a bail bonds firm such an quantity would have been powerful for the younger man, his household’s lawyer mentioned. Rodriguez had struggled to search out work, and was about to begin a job at FedEx earlier than his arrest.

By then the 25-year-old had already been assaulted a number of occasions at Rikers Island, New York City’s remoted jail advanced within the East River identified domestically because the “Gladiator School.” In his time there, his household mentioned, he was hospitalized as soon as after one other detainee broke his eye socket. After that, The New York Occasions reported, he clashed with a workforce of guards.

Rodriguez couldn’t have gone to Rikers at a worse time. For months, correction officers have been skipping work in droves, leaving detainees in dozens of unmanned posts with out correct meals or medical consideration for days.

Six days on the island proved to be an excessive amount of for the younger man.

On August tenth, the day after Thompson’s ruling, Rodriguez hung himself inside his consumption cell. A correction officer discovered him with a T-shirt wrapped round his neck.

Decide Thompson didn’t reply to a request for remark obtained by her courtroom lawyer. However in an electronic mail, Lucian Chalfen, a courtroom spokesperson, defended her bail determination, pointing to Rodriguez’s expenses and his historical past of failing to look in courtroom.

Brandon Rodriguez, 25, died on August tenth in a cell on the consumption facility on Rikers Island.

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Brandon Rodriguez, 25, died on August tenth in a cell on the consumption facility on Rikers Island.


Courtesy of lawyer Williams Wagstaff III

Rodriguez was the ninth individual incarcerated in a metropolis jail to die in 2021. Since then, the full dying rely has climbed to 12. The spree of fatalities has prompted distinguished elected officers to push the governor and the mayor to shut Rikers and empty metropolis jails in order that fewer individuals are subjected to unsanitary circumstances, COVID-19, and escalating violence amongst workers and detainees.

However Governor Kathy Hochul’s powers have, to this point, been restricted to releasing a pair hundred folks detained for technical parole violations and transferring 200 others to state services. That, mixed with work releases that Mayor Invoice de Blasio has to this point refused to grant, would solely take away a small portion of Rikers’ swelling inhabitants within the close to time period.

Massive reductions within the variety of folks held in metropolis jails would as a substitute rely upon a key set of actors who’ve to this point confronted little scrutiny: New York Metropolis judges. Round 80% of the town’s jail inhabitants consists of individuals like Rodriguez, locked up as they look ahead to trial as a result of judges have determined to detain them or, extra steadily, set bails they will’t afford.

“Judges are the gatekeepers of who goes in and out of Rikers Island,” mentioned Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of the Higher Justice New York program on the Vera Institute, a legal justice analysis group. “They have a very central role in putting people into this set of facilities that are torturous and inhumane, where people are dying left and right.”

However relatively than working to alleviate crowding inside Rikers and different metropolis jails, courtroom information reveals judges are detaining an growing variety of folks earlier than their trials, and an evaluation by Gothamist/WNYC and New York Focus reveals some judges play an outsized position in driving this development.

A Quiet Insurrection From The Bench

In 2019, the New York State legislature handed a highly-contentious bail reform regulation over the vociferous objections of regulation enforcement teams, amongst others. The laws blocked judges from imposing bail for a spread of legal expenses, eliminating their potential to carry folks in pre-trial detention for many misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Judges are nonetheless allowed to set bail on most violent felonies, however provided that there’s a demonstrable threat that defendants will flee prosecution.

What they will’t take into consideration is their notion of an individual’s threat to the general public. Not like in different states, judges in New York aren’t allowed to set bail on somebody, and due to this fact make it tougher to get out of jail, as a result of they suppose the individual may commit one other crime. That’s been a hotly debated provision of New York regulation for 50 years, with critics saying it ignores public security and defenders arguing it preserves the presumption of innocence.

In apply, judges have lengthy flouted this regulation in arraignment courtroom by citing flight threat as a cause for imposing excessive, steadily unaffordable bails, even when their actual concern is public security.

“Look, if a judge wants to lock somebody up, they’re going to lock somebody up. It’s that simple,” mentioned Charles Linehan, a former Manhattan prosecutor.

He used the instance of somebody with an current legal historical past who’s been charged with knife-point theft.

“There might be a case where the data doesn’t support this person being a flight risk,” Linehan mentioned. “[But the judge] may be thinking, ‘Well, he used a knife here, what if he goes out and does something horrible to somebody, and the New York Post is shouting how judge so-and-so let this guy out on no bail.’”

Setting apart whether or not a decide’s reasoning for imposing bail conforms with the regulation’s slim confines in regards to the chance of an individual returning to courtroom, how steadily a decide units bail is usually a operate of the political local weather.

In early 2020, after the legislature’s landmark bail reforms went into impact, judges’ pre-trial choices contributed to a pointy discount within the metropolis’s jail inhabitants. However as shootings within the metropolis rose—and as tabloids and regulation enforcement waged a profitable battle to partially reduce the bail reform regulation—courtroom information suggests the judiciary grew to become more and more unable, or unwilling, to observe the regulation. Judges routinely made choices that detained folks pre-trial, even when the town’s statistical device for assessing flight threat indicated they have been more likely to return to courtroom. (Like different jurisdictions, New York Metropolis makes use of a pc algorithm to assist decide who’s more likely to present as much as courtroom and who’s not.)

For instance, within the ultimate quarter of 2020, that algorithm beneficial judges launch 74% of defendants accused of violent felonies with out bail or supervision, reflecting the truth that the overwhelming majority of individuals dealing with such expenses attend all their courtroom dates.

However throughout that interval, judges often ignored these suggestions, releasing such defendants with out circumstances solely 26% of the time. (One other 16% of these accused of violent felonies have been launched with mandated check-ins and different supervisory circumstances).

Rikers Island and New York City’s different jail websites presently maintain roughly 6,000 folks in complete. A examine by the Middle for Courtroom Innovation discovered that if judges merely reverted to their early 2020 practices, metropolis jails would have round 760 fewer detainees on any given day. It additionally discovered that if judges adopted the suggestions of the town’s bail-risk algorithm, almost 1,000 fewer folks can be locked up in metropolis jails.

Some Judges Set Bail Extra Than Others

When judges do impose bail, the regulation requires them to think about a defendant’s potential to pay. And but, as was the case for Rodriguez, bail is steadily set out of attain for most individuals. In 2020, two-thirds of defendants held on bail have been nonetheless in jail per week later.

In different phrases, setting bail often means sending an individual to jail.

However judges’ observe data are hardly uniform, based on courtroom information launched this summer time.

An evaluation by Gothamist/WNYC and New York Focus reveals that, in 2020, New York City’s judges held or set bail on 46% of defendants dealing with expenses by which bail could possibly be utilized—and a few judges went effectively previous this common.

In Manhattan, Decide Lumarie Maldonado-Cruz set bail or remand (holding defendants with out the opportunity of launch) in 77% of bail-eligible instances, the best charge within the metropolis. The Bronx’s high decide by this metric was Beth Beller, who set bail or remand in 66% of the instances she noticed. Brooklyn’s chief was Decide Quynda Santacroce, at 64%.

That Maldonado-Cruz had the best ranking within the metropolis got here as no shock to 2 Manhattan protection attorneys, who requested anonymity for worry of retaliation in opposition to their shoppers.

“When you interview a client, one of the questions they’re always going to ask is, ‘Am I going home?’ And you have to give a different answer depending on the judge. With her, the answer is often much clearer,” one lawyer mentioned.

Like many judges, Maldonado-Cruz set bail much less usually within the rapid months after the reforms handed—however then started releasing fewer folks in the summertime of 2020 amid rising fears over gun crime and as pushback in opposition to New York’s bail reforms intensified.

“As soon as she felt comfortable getting away with setting bail again, she started doing it as if nothing had changed,” the lawyer mentioned. “And now, lately, for the last five or six months, I’ve just been feeling like… there’s some sort of unofficial agreement on the part of some of these judges to act as if things are as they used to be.”

Maldonado-Cruz didn’t reply to requests for remark.

The numbers additionally present a various image throughout the town, pointing to differing courthouse cultures and prosecutorial practices. Whereas Manhattan ranks within the center amongst boroughs on the subject of violent crime, its judges are by far the hardest on common. 9 of the highest 15 judges for bail and remand charges have been from the borough.

This recreation of likelihood is a given for these caught up within the legal justice system and their attorneys, mentioned Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender who’s now the Democratic nominee for a metropolis council seat in Queens.

“When you’re a defender, you know who those judges are,” she mentioned, describing how she and her former colleagues would attempt to time some instances to keep away from more durable judges and provides their shoppers a greater likelihood at launch.

“You look to your colleague and say, ‘Hey, who is the judge coming next? Because maybe we shouldn’t arraign this case. We should wait an hour,’” she mentioned.

For Harris-Calvin on the Vera Institute, the truth that some judges have set bail at such excessive charges reveals the hazard of giving judges an excessive amount of discretion.

“Whether or not you go to jail—whether or not you have the consequences of losing your child, losing your employment, losing your housing, losing your connection to the community, losing your medical care, your mental health services—depends on who you just happen to be before as a judge. Which makes our system less fair. It makes our system less equitable,” she mentioned.

Linehan, the previous prosecutor, mentioned there aren’t simple alternate options.

“The amount of people being held on bail, and therefore the population at Rikers, is being directly impacted by the decisions that individual judges are making, based often on subjective factors,” he mentioned, noting that the algorithms that judges depend on when setting bail may also be biased.But I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Despatched To Rikers

When Segundo Guallpa was arrested on home violence expenses, he went to Rikers Island. Now, his spouse, Luz Gualman, needs he’d gone someplace the place he might have truly gotten assist.

For many of their 37-year marriage, Gualman remembers her husband as an “excellent” household man—cooking for the children, cleansing the home, and taking part in volleyball along with his pals after work in Corona, Queens.

Then, round 1997, the Ecuadorian immigrant was concerned in a development accident that completely severed the ideas of two of his fingers and left him unemployed. Caught at residence, he started ingesting, often simply beer. At first, Gualman says, it didn’t pose a lot of an issue. After coming residence from work at her job at a clothes manufacturing facility, she would inform him to cease, and he would.

However then round 2013, whereas standing outdoors his home late one night time, Guallpa was assaulted in a theft. The attacker hit him repeatedly within the head, nearly killing him. Afterwards, he started ingesting extra and have become violent in the direction of the girl conserving his household afloat.

Gualman suffered her husband’s abuse for years. She would disguise and sleep in her youngsters’ rooms to keep away from him when he was drunk. “I could have called the police like a dozen times, but I never did because I was afraid of what would happen to him,” she recalled.

Luz Gualman and her son Francisco Guallpa

Luz Gualman and her son Francisco Guallpa

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Luz Gualman and her son Francisco Guallpa


George Joseph

However sooner or later this previous August, after a very brutal assault, she advised her daughter to name 911. She was going to present the legal justice system an opportunity.

“What I wanted was protection for myself,” she mentioned, noting that she wished her husband to go away and go some place else, comparable to a rehab facility. “And maybe that they would do some kind of treatment or something for his alcoholism.”

At the bail listening to that adopted his arrest, nonetheless, remedy wasn’t an possibility. Queens Decide Edwin Novillo gave Guallpa a $7,500 bail bond.

With the household already behind on hire, fuel, and bank card payments, even the 6.6% charge for that quantity was out of attain for the sporadically employed former development employee, based on Gualman.

Decide Novillo didn’t reply to requests for remark about whether or not he’d taken Guallpa’s potential to pay into consideration. Guallpa was faraway from Novillo’s courtroom and despatched to Rikers. He wouldn’t see his household once more.

One other Means

Proponents of decarceration need to see judges take a distinct tack—respecting the authorized requirement to launch individuals who pose little flight threat, decreasing their use of bail, and sending fewer folks to Rikers as they await their trials. They word information exhibiting lower than 1% of people who find themselves launched pre-trial are re-arrested for violent felonies, and {that a} jail’s harsh setting and the disruption it causes of their lives can truly make them extra more likely to have interaction in legal exercise sooner or later.

“The research overwhelmingly indicates that releasing people reduces recidivism in the long run, and pre-trial detention increases it,” mentioned Michael Rempel, a legal justice researcher and director of jail reform on the Middle for Courtroom Innovation.

“I think that’s where the public is often confused, because it’s intuitive and obvious that detaining people means that they won’t be rearrested while they’re detained,” he mentioned. “But less intuitive is that all of these people are inevitably released… so the complete story is [judges are] actually increasing recidivism, in the long run.”

For instances by which there is a real threat of flight, New York’s bail reforms require judges to make use of the “least restrictive conditions” obligatory to make sure their return to courtroom.

Reformers argue that in lots of of those instances, judges ought to put defendants on what’s generally known as “supervised release,” requiring that they examine in with authorities and entry social providers, comparable to housing and job coaching packages. Current analysis on supervised launch in New York Metropolis discovered it’s equally efficient as bail in making certain defendants return to courtroom.

Because the variety of deaths has mounted at Rikers, the town’s Correction Commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, has additionally urged courts to make use of alternate options to bail.

“Please, please use supervised release,” he begged at a Board of Correction assembly earlier this month.

“What’s the Judge Supposed to Do?”

In the case of Segundo Guallpa, the town’s flight-risk algorithm beneficial he be launched, based on a courtroom transcript. He’d lived in the identical residence for the previous decade and a half. He wasn’t going to run away, his protection lawyer argued on the arraignment listening to. All his ties have been in Queens.

However given the character of his home violence expenses, which included strangulation, Linehan, the previous prosecutor, mentioned most judges can be hesitant to grant launch of any type, no matter what the regulation or the algorithm says.

“In a domestic case, everybody is terrified that the wife is going to get murdered,” he mentioned.

The system, because it presently exists, would by no means have paid for the answer Guallpa’s spouse wished—a non-public rehab facility for him to reside in, distant from his household’s residence.

“So what’s the judge supposed to do in that situation?” Linehan requested. “The only thing he’s thinking is, ‘If I let this guy out, he’s going to go kill her.’”

Whereas in custody, Guallpa tried to name his spouse. She didn’t reply, so he left a voicemail. “‘Forgive me, I didn’t know what I was doing,’” Gualman recalled him saying.

It was the final time she heard from him. Eleven days after his arraignment listening to, the 58-year-old took his life inside his cell on Rikers Island.

“I didn’t want this to happen,” Gualman mentioned. “Had I known what I know now, I would have never called the police.”

Gualman says the system isn’t truthful. Had her husband had cash, he would have been launched. He might have paid to get assist. He would nonetheless be alive.

“A humble person, who has no money, cannot pay that,” she mentioned. “So he pays with his life.”


George Joseph is a reporter with the WNYC/Gothamist Race & Justice Unit. You may ship him tips about Fb, Twitter @georgejoseph94, Instagram @georgejoseph81, and at [email protected] His cellphone and encrypted Sign app quantity is 929-486-4865.

Akash Mehta is the editor of New York Focus. He could be reached at [email protected], and on Twitter at @akashvmehta.



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