Rikers Island
Rikers Island (Wiki/Cdogsimmons)

A bill championed by New York City corrections officers to have Queens County, not Bronx County, prosecute crimes committed on Rikers Island has been denounced by major players in the criminal justice system.

On Tuesday, the New York Civil Liberties Union urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto the bill that the state Legislature overwhelmingly approved this spring. Previously, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, the Legal Aid Society of New York City and District Attorneys Robert Johnson of the Bronx and Richard Brown of Queens had also opposed the bill.

“S4928/A7333 is an ill-advised special-interest bill that slipped through the legislative process on false premises,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman and Legislative Director Robert Perry said in the letter to the governor. “It is firmly opposed by every public stakeholder with an important interest in the matter. It threatens fundamental constitutional guarantees, and it purports to relieve state officials of the responsibilities of office simply for performing as the New York State Constitution demands.”

The measure would add a new §1(N) to the Criminal Procedure Law stating that “an offense committed at Rikers Island facilities shall be prosecuted by Queens County.”

The governor’s office has been reviewing the bill but has no comment on it, Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said Tuesday. Cuomo’s office generally declines comment on pending legislation. The bill has not yet been sent to the governor for his consideration.

Its sponsors, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, and Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls, said in a memo accompanying the bill that it would “provide cost savings and management efficiencies” for New York City by saving time and money to transport prisoners between Rikers Island and Queens versus the current trip between Rikers and the Bronx.

Lentol also noted Tuesday that defendants arrested for crimes at Rikers Island are initially processed at a police precinct in Queens before their cases are transferred to the Bronx for prosecution. Lentol said it makes sense to continue the Rikers’ matters in Queens.

Rikers Island has been part of the Bronx since the New York City Charter of 1897. It is in the East River equidistant between the Bronx and Queens.

The measure was lauded by the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the 11,000-member union that represents guards at Rikers’ Island and the city’s other corrections facilities.

Union President Norman Seabrook on Tuesday equated the union’s advocacy of the bill to a person seeking a change of venue when they do not believe they will get a fair trial in a court. He said his members feel they have been subject to physical abuse by inmates that has often not been vigorously prosecuted by Johnson’s office in the Bronx.

“Correction officers … who are brutally assaulted by inmates have the right to be protected under the constitution as does any other civilian or municipal employee,” Seabrook said in a statement. “If correction officers were receiving fair and impartial treatment in Bronx County, we would not be seeking a change of jurisdiction.”

Seabrook urged Cuomo “to take a bold stand against an injustice that has left us victimized, brutalized and subjected to frivolous allegations and execute the signing of this legislation.”

Both Brown and Johnson, however, said in a joint June 25 letter to Cuomo that they oppose the bill in the “strongest possible terms.”

They said any savings in transportation costs from the jurisdictional change would be “negligible” and more than offset by higher costs to the prosecutors’ offices and the courts in Queens of absorbing the 1,000 felony and misdemeanor cases arising from Rikers Island each year.

In addition, the two D.A.s questioned the constitutionality of taking cases away from Johnson, who is duly elected to prosecute crimes in the Bronx, including Rikers Island, and handing them to another district attorney.

“It … would have a chilling effect on a district attorney’s legitimate exercise of discretion to pursue difficult or controversial types of cases if the Legislature can, at any time, deprive that district attorney of jurisdiction over those types of cases and place jurisdiction in another county regardless of where they occur,” the two prosecutors wrote. “Could legislation, for example, be enacted that would require all political corruption cases occurring in Albany County be prosecuted in Hamilton County which only as a part-time D.A. and very limited resources?”

The director of de Blasio’s Albany legislative office, Sherif Soliman, said in a memo of opposition from the mayor’s office that the bill would also strip district attorneys other than Johnson of jurisdiction to prosecute some crimes committed by Rikers inmates.

The measure also would mandate that prisoners at Rikers who violate orders of protection would be prosecuted in Queens and not, as is currently the case, by district attorney’s offices where the victims live.

Seymour James Jr., attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, said the “terribly flawed” bill could complicate efforts by the de Blasio administration to reduce violence among inmates at Rikers and by prisoners against guards.

“The removal of jurisdiction from the Bronx County district attorney … will hamper the effort to reduce violence by transferring jurisdiction to a district attorney’s office that has little or no experience in prosecuting the type of crimes that occur on Rikers Island,” James said in a July 9 letter to Cuomo. “Many pending investigations will be disrupted.”

Southern District U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a report on Aug. 4 which detailed a “culture of violence” at Rikers Island in which he said guards faced few consequences for systematically abusing young prisoners.

Lentol said Tuesday he has been surprised at the controversy created by the bill, which was approved 55-4 by the Senate on May 29 and 131-0 by the Assembly on June 11.

He also said that while he agreed to sponsor the bill, he declined to follow the proposal of the guards’ union to retroactively apply the measure. The bill approved by lawmakers would take effect on Jan. 1, 2016.

The measure is not meant as a slight against Johnson or his handling of Rikers’ cases, Lentol said.

“This takes nothing away from either D.A., Johnson or Brown,” Lentol said. “They are both excellent.”

As to Seabrook’s suggestion that Brown’s office would go easier on guards accused of abusing inmates than Johnson’s, Lentol said, “Be careful what you ask for. They could be going from the frying pan to the fire.”

The Unified Court System has not advised the governor’s office on whether to sign or veto the bill.