Health Committee chairs: Now is the time to keep people out of jails

Legislative Gazette file photo
Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried says rolling back bail reforms during a state and national health emergency would put more lives in danger by exposing prisoners, jail staff, and communities to the coronavirus.

With the coronavirus rampant in New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers could accelerate the budget process, including tweaks to bail reform.

The controversial new law has been unpopular among some prosecutors, police, some lawmakers and voters, so state legislators have been discussing ways to change it.

Gov. Cuomo has said he wants any changes to be part of the budget process. But now, in light of the health care disaster unfolding at the state and national level, some are warning that changing bail reform laws at this time could exacerbate the spread of the virus.

“Everyone is pointing out that jails and prisons are a hotbed of spreading contagion,” said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chair of the Health Committee. “Our bail reform has [kept] more people out of that pot of bumbling contagion.

“Coming in and out and infecting other inmates, infecting personnel, and when they come out, infecting their neighbors,” Gottfried said.

Gottfried and Senate Health Chair Gustavo Rivera sent a letter to every fellow lawmaker on Tuesday denouncing efforts to rollback bail reform during a health emergency.

“Protecting bail reform is an issue of racial justice and public health with or without COVID-19,” they wrote. “Rolling back this important policy now would worsen a public health crisis. And ramming it through as part of an ‘accelerated’ budget process is even more offensive.”

On March 18, lawmakers and stakeholders hosted a video conference to warn against changes to bail reform during a public health emergency.

Bail reform legislation passed last spring during the budget process and went into effect January 1. It eliminated pre-trial detention and cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. The legislation also eliminated discretion for judges to detain potentially dangerous individuals.

Bail reform essentially keeps more people out of jail, which was the goal of the coalition behind the reforms. In February 2020, there were 6,800 fewer people incarcerated than in February 2019, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Changing bail reform now, with the goal of imposing pre-trial bail on more suspects, would put more people who are potentially infected with the coronavirus in local jails across the state, exposing thousands of inmates, police and other jail staff to the disease.

“If we act now [with] immediate and substantial changes in the population in the jails, this will slow the spread of coronavirus within the jails,” said Dr. Bobby Cohen, the former director of Rikers Island health services.

Jails have poor hygiene as inmates are typically prohibited from using hand sanitizer – though that restriction has been waived recently — and have little access to soap and other disinfectants.

“To protect everyone who lives and works inside the jails, we must do everything we can to decrease the number of people inside,” Cohen said.

An incubation of the virus in jails could impact 40 percent of inmates, who already suffer from health conditions, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Others, including New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, are calling for a moratorium on low-level enforcement of crimes and to release older and sickly inmates as they are more susceptible to getting and spreading the coronavirus.

“Let’s not tell people to shelter in their homes and then go get them for a technical [parole] violation,” Williams said.

As lawmakers are asked to pass a state budget in the coming days, the Capitol remains closed to visitors in fear of spreading the virus. In light of this, many are asking for a budget that is free from large policy matters, such as pre-trial justice reforms.

“By visiting the Capitol Hill, meeting with legislators and holding rallies in the Capitol advocates and community leaders are able to express what communities need in the budget,” said Katie Schaffer, the director of Advocacy and Organizing for the Center of Community Alternatives. “Having a budget without access to the Capitol really limits the democratic process.”