The entrance to the Rikers Island Correctional Department facility, where a judge says the city should do more for the mentally ill.
The entrance to the Rikers Island Correctional Department facility, where a judge says the city should do more for the mentally ill. (Reuters/Stapleton)

While Eric Garner’s tragic death in police custody has prompted inquiries into policing and chokeholds, his passing should also compel a broader investigation into the overall state of New York City’s criminal justice system. For the past 20 years, New Yorkers have heard only one note about criminal justice, the city is safer than ever. Nothing was said and no questions were raised about who was arrested, for what, or what happened to them after arrest. Recent revelations, however, sound cause for alarm. Underneath the surface of the ‘safest large city in the world’ patina is a criminal justice system in crisis.

The first sign of trouble appeared over stop-and-frisk. It turned out that blacks and Latinos accounted for almost 90 percent of all stops-and-frisks and only about 10 percent of the stops yielded an arrest or even a ticket. A federal judge ruled that the NYPD had engaged in widespread constitutional violations.

Last year, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes began reviewing about 50 homicide cases where Louis Scarcella had been the lead detective. This effort stemmed from the exoneration of David Ranta, a man Scarcella helped put in prison for a crime he did not commit. It turned out that Scarcella used the same crack addict as a witness for at least six different murders, and that his cases revealed a pattern of alleged confessions from people who later denied guilt. Eyebrows were also raised that nobody in the district attorney’s office seemed to have questioned Scarcella’s behavior. Ranta was released after serving 23 years and settled his lawsuit against the city for $6.4 million.

The present Brooklyn District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson, appointed a task force to continue examining possible wrongful convictions. The number of Scarcella cases under investigation has ballooned to 71. Seven people have already been exonerated and civil rights lawsuits abound.

Brooklyn is not the only prosecutor’s office under scrutiny. A recent study of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office by the Vera Institute of Justice found that blacks and Latinos charged with misdemeanor person offenses or misdemeanor drug offenses were more likely to be detained at arraignment, and that blacks and Latinos charged with drug offenses received more punitive plea offers and custodial sentences than similarly situated whites.

The study reviewed over 200,000 cases and concluded what a similar study by the statewide Division for Criminal Justice Services found over 20 years ago—black and Latino defendants in the main were treated more harshly than white defendants.

Rikers Island, the city’s primary jail complex, is home to about 12,000 men, women and adolescents, the majority of whom haven’t been convicted of anything; they are just too poor to post bail, often in the range of $2,000 or less. In March, a correction officer was arrested on civil rights charges for the death of Jason Echevarria, a mentally ill man who died in his cell as his repeated pleas for medical help were ignored.

In April, Jerome Murdough, a 56-year-old mentally ill homeless veteran, was arrested for sleeping in the stairwell of a public housing building. He died at Rikers as the temperature in his cell rose above 100 degrees. Echevarria’s father filed a $20 million lawsuit against the city and Murdough’s mother filed a $25 million claim.

Solitary confinement at Rikers, which means 23-hour lock-up in a 6-by-8-foot cinderblock cell, has been increasing even as the United Nations has condemned the practice as cruel and inhumane. Over the past six years, the number of solitary confinement beds increased nearly two-thirds while the daily inmate population declined. Approximately 800 inmates are in solitary at any given time, and more than half of them are mentally ill. More than a quarter of the adolescents at Rikers Island are held in solitary confinement even though medical evidence shows that young people are especially susceptible to developmental harm when kept in isolation.

On March 18, 2014, The New York Times reported that use of force by correction officers increased nearly 240 percent over the past decade. The recorded incidents of use of force for January through May 2014 doubled from the same period three years earlier. A study of an 11-month period from last year revealed that 129 inmates suffered serious injuries at the hands of Correction Department staff and that 77 percent of the seriously injured had received a mental illness diagnosis.

In June 2014, two correction officers were arrested and nearly a dozen others were referred for prosecution based on allegations of drug trafficking and inmate abuse, and three more officers were placed under arrest in July.

New York Attorney General Eric Holder and Southern District U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced the results of an investigation into the conditions of confinement of male adolescents at Rikers. The investigation found pervasive constitutional violations—adolescent inmates are not adequately protected from physical harm due to the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by Department of Correction staff and violence from other inmates. The investigation also found that DOC relies too heavily on solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure, and that many of the adolescent inmates are particularly vulnerable because they suffer from mental illness.

And now there is Eric Garner’s homicide that started with his arrest for selling individual cigarettes or “loosies.” “Broken Windows,” or quality-of-life, policing, the tactic animating the NYPD for the past two decades, is grounded in the belief that order maintenance is the primary police priority. Over time, it has grown into what is known as zero tolerance and police officers arrest people for violations such as taking up two seats on the subway, riding a bike on the sidewalk, and even jaywalking.

Putting on hold the wisdom of a strategy of massive arrests for minor crimes, it has become apparent that, much like stop-and-frisk, people of color overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the policing tactic.

Broken Windows policing motivates tickets as well as arrests. The Daily News recently reported that the number of summonses issued each year has soared since “broken windows” was implemented in the early 1990s—from 160,000 in 1993 to a high of 648,638 in 2005—and that approximately 81 percent of the 7.3 million people hit with violations between 2001 and 2013 were black and Hispanic.

To date, the Police Commissioner Bratton and Mayor de Blasio have given Broken Windows full-throated support. Bratton’s steadfast clinging to policies of yore is consistent with the mayor’s decision to select Bratton in the first place. A mayor elected on platform of progressive reform selected a former commissioner to invoke policies from 20 years ago. Pundits said de Blasio picked Bratton to provide cover if crime upticked during his tenure. After all, if he did as promised and ended stop-and-frisk as we knew it, he had to be concerned that any increase in crime would cause him political fallout. Now, he faces growing criticism over his police commissioner’s signature policing strategy.

For too long, the only governmental measure of criminal justice in New York City was the crime rate, and the overall criminal justice apparatus was left untended and ignored. Just as the death of Eric Garner is a springboard to broader discussions of policing, so, too, should it serve as a clarion call to scrutinize New York City criminal justice writ large. As the curtain is pulled back, the panoramic view reveals a system in crisis and in dire need of reform.