New York City Courts solve 42% of Long-Term Cases at Rikers Island
Previous two months, New York City’s courts have solved 42% of more than 1,400 criminal cases involving accused who had been at the Rikers Island jail complex for more than a year, and figures released Wednesday showed.
In April the courts launched an effort to decrease a backlog of pending cases that keeps thousands of people detained for months or years—often because they can’t make bail—while they await trial or a resolution of their case.
But some say the courts’ efforts won’t do enough to address the delays and inequities that they say plague the city’s criminal justice system, including overburdened courts and lawyers, high bail amounts and dismal conditions at Rikers.
As of June 10, the city had cleared 591 of the 1,427 cases that, as of mid-April, involved inmates who have been at Rikers more than a year, data from the state judiciary showed. That leaves 836 cases remaining from the original pool.
On Wednesday officials said that the total number of defendants currently in jail for more than a year is likely higher because some cases reached the one-year mark after the initiative began and some defendants in resolved cases may still be at Rikers pending placement in state prison.
Officials didn’t respond when asked Wednesday to specify the current number of Rikers inmates incarcerated for more than a year. The majority of the recently cleared cases were resolved by a guilty plea, officials said, while others ended in a trial and a few were dismissed outright.
“Reducing backlogs can be very challenging for the courts, but there’s no question that it’s the responsibility of the courts and judges to do that,” said Lawrence Marks, the state’s first deputy chief administrative judge. “So far, we are very pleased with the results.”
The initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” involved coordination between judges, officials at City Hall and members of the defense bar and district attorneys. The state court system designated administrative judges in each borough to process and schedule cases, focusing on inmates who had been at Rikers longest.
Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, lauded the progress but said “this is just a first step in making systemic changes” at Rikers.
As of late March, some 400 defendants had been at the jail complex—located on the 400-plus-acre island in the East River—for more than two years, officials said. A handful had been there for six years or more.
While most of the oldest cases involve complex homicide cases, many of the two- and three-year-old cases involve defendants held on robbery, gun or drug charges, officials and attorneys said. Those defendants typically remain in custody because they couldn’t afford bail, attorneys said.
The problem with lengthy stays at Rikers was highlighted this month by the suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent three years behind bars on robbery charges that were eventually dismissed. A teenager when he entered Rikers, Mr. Browder spent two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted suicide multiple times, officials said.
Defense attorneys say Mr. Browder’s case, though extreme, wasn’t atypical. Inmates can wait years as court dates are pushed back, plea agreements negotiated and trials delayed.
In 2013, city defendants waited an average of 594 days before going to trial, according to state records. Bess Stiffelman, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said periodic efforts to clear the backlog of cases weren’t sufficient. “The bail system should be fixed so that people who are poor don’t get stuck in jail,” she said. Lawyers and judges should have manageable caseloads, she said, and defendants who demand trials “shouldn’t have to get in line.”
Ms Stiffelman said people often plead guilty just to get out of jail. At a City Council hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers proposed expanding pretrial supervision programs and bail alternatives.
“Simply put, the bail system, as administered, is broken,” said council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Manhattan Democrat.
New York State Sen. Daniel Squadron, a Brooklyn Democrat, championed legislation on Wednesday to limit delays that keep defendants in jail.
Court officials and attorneys said there are several reasons for delays in trials, including large caseloads, changes in lawyers and the challenges of wrangling witnesses, coordinating schedules and moving defendants to and from Rikers for court appearances.
“There is never one reason; there’s always a combination of reasons,” said Administrative Judge Robert Torres of the Bronx, who has managed that borough’s efforts to reduce the backlog. “If I had more judges, more resources that would solve part of the problem.”
But defense attorneys also can be responsible for delays. Scott Brettschneider, a defense attorney, said delays can be an advantage for the defense because, for example, prosecution witnesses can disappear.
Mr. Brett Schneider said that Yes, you may say this case is taking an awfully long time, but there is a legal strategy behind some of the decisions that were made.