The Rikers Island complex consists of ten jails.
The Rikers Island complex consists of ten jails. (Tim Bodenberg)

Attempting to reduce unnecessary pretrial detention and reliance on cash bail, New York City officials say they will spend $17.8 million to expand supervised release programs for people awaiting resolution of criminal cases.

Building on city-funded pilot programs that have operated in Queens since 2009 and Manhattan since 2013, the funds will pay for providers to administer supervised release in every borough. Between Queens and Manhattan, the pilot programs have the capacity to supervise 1,100 pretrial defendants.

The infusion of funds announced Wednesday will expand the citywide capacity for supervised release to 3,400 individuals who have been charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies and might otherwise be detained on bail.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. will kick in $13.8 million in asset forfeiture money; the city will contribute $4 million spread over the course of fiscal years 2016, 2017 and 2018.

While only about 14 percent of those arraigned in New York City are held on bail each year, that amounts to about 45,500 people, according to city officials.

Cash bail, pretrial wait times and pretrial detention at Rikers Island have come under increasing scrutiny. For example, the courts, city officials, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are pressing hard to reduce the backlog of felony cases for Rikers Island detainees that are at least one year old.

Last month, court officials announced 42 percent of the 1,427 cases pending as of mid-April had been resolved (NYLJ, June 18).

Meanwhile, the case of Kalief Browder has caused concern. Browder was held at Rikers Island for three years before his robbery case was dismissed. He killed himself last month, at age 22, and his estate is suing the city and Bronx prosecutors.

In a statement on the supervised release initiative Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said there was a “very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial. Money bail is a problem because, as the system currently operates in New York, some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose. This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay.”

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who has been calling for bail reform for several years, said the courts would fully cooperate with the expanded supervised release program.

In a statement, Lippman said “providing judges with more accurate and complete information about the defendants who come before them, and instituting effective alternatives such as supervised release, are critical steps in reducing overreliance on bail.”

Also on Wednesday, the city issued a request for proposals for bids from nonprofit organizations.

Sarah Solon, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said the city sought to have the providers picked by September and the expanded program running by early 2016.

She said the city pledged $4 million for supervised release expansion in December 2014, as a result of recommendations from a task force examining mental health and the city’s criminal justice system.

She noted the Center for Court Innovation also runs a supervised release program in Brooklyn funded through money from the state and other sources.

Solon said from fiscal year 2019 onward, the city plans to pay the entire annual cost of the program, which it anticipates to be $4 million.

The New York City Criminal Justice Agency, the city’s contracted pretrial services agency, operates the Queens and Manhattan pilot programs.

Some 1,860 cases have been handled by the Queens program since its inception in 2009 and about 865 in the Manhattan program, said Jerome McElroy, executive director of the Criminal Justice Agency.

Participants in the supervised release program must meet with a Criminal Justice Agency case manager in person twice a week and talk with them over the phone. The case managers notify the participant of upcoming court dates, but also attempt to address other issues the defendant may face, making referrals to mental health and substance abuse treatment, for example. But because the case is in a pretrial posture, such referrals are not mandatory, McElroy said.

The Queens and Manhattan programs have seen an 86 to 88 percent successful completion rate whereby supervised release was not revoked before case disposition.

Revocation of supervision for a failure to show up for a court appearance was between 4 to 6 percent. Revocation of supervision for pretrial re-arrest was about 8 percent, he said.

McElroy said the organization would apply to provide expanded services in Manhattan and Queens, but it was still determining whether to apply for cases in the other boroughs. He said he was “very much in favor of doing away with money bail” but he doubted how soon that would happen.

“That being the case, one looks for alternatives to money bail that are useful to the court. At least in supervised release, we are saying to the court, it doesn’t just have to be [release on recognizance] or bail, here’s an alternative.”

New York state’s bail laws, codified in Criminal Procedure Law, permit decisions based on risk of flight, but prohibit judges from considering dangerousness to the community.

In their statements on the expanded supervised release, both Lippman and Vance said the state bail laws were out of date. Vance called on state lawmakers to revise the bail laws to consider dangerousness and re-offense in bail decisions, which he said is the practice of most states.

“The use of an updated science-driven risk assessment tool will help actors in the criminal justice system better understand who can safely be released and supervised in the community while awaiting their day in court,” Vance said.

City Councilman Rory Lancman, chair of the council’s Courts & Legal Services Committee, said supervised release expansion was “the right move for courts and for taxpayers” and an example of criminal justice reform that could be accomplished without action from state lawmakers.