justice

Defenders Plead for ‘Intimate’ Rikers Parole Hearings to Go to Video

Parole hearings are still scheduled to be held in person on Rikers Island.
Parole hearings are still scheduled to be held in person on Rikers Island. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Parole hearings on Rikers Island came to a halt Monday after a team of public defenders refused to attend the gatherings held in small confines that they fear could become a breeding ground for the coronavirus.

There were 83 cases scheduled on Monday and most of them were delayed because attorneys refused to enter the Donald J. Cranston Judicial Center on Rikers, according to Lorraine McEvilley, the Legal Aid Society’s director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit.

“The hearing rooms are a disaster,” she said. “It’s like a small dining room table where you’d have an intimate gathering.”

The hearings are held on weekdays for inmates who have been put back in jail for violating terms of their parole. Inmates held in city jails are moved from their various housing units to the judicial center, where they argue their cases before a prosecutor working for the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).

Detainees often wait in jail for weeks, if not months, to have their cases scheduled.

On Tuesday morning, the city Board of Correction, which sets policy for city jails, urged a rapid decrease in the population on Rikers Island and other facilities, with release for people at high risk of coronavirus infection.

“The City must drastically reduce the number of people in jail right now and limit new admissions to exceptional circumstances,” the board said in a statement.

“Significantly fewer people in jail will limit the spread of COVID-19 infection among people in custody and those who work in the jails, minimize the number of people in custody who will need medical care, decrease the density of housing areas for people who remain in jail, and allow New Yorkers to maintain connections with and support from their loved ones.”

In a statement, City Hall spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said: “We are actively looking into the possibility of removing high-risk detainees from our city jails. We must ensure doing so maintains both their safety and the safety of others.”

‘A Dangerous Situation’

On Monday, McEvilley said she urged DOCCS to put the hearings on hold for two days to give the state time to create a video conference system to avoid the close quarter contact inside the hearing rooms where everyone is forced to be around a foot apart.

“Our concern is that by bringing clients to this center and having our clients exposed to people from the community, this is the perfect incubator for transmission between the civilians, judges and parole prosecutors,” she said.

DOCCS has so far refused to temporarily suspend hearings, arguing it would lead to a backlog, according to a state source. The department is working on creating a video system, the source added.

McEvilley said the lawyers “felt bad” about staying away.

“We feel terrible for our clients,” she said. “This is no way not wanting to go to court to represent our clients. We do that very well. But this is such a dangerous situation and the setup is just unsafe.”

She and other criminal justice advocates are also calling on the state to release all parolees held on technical violations like a failed drug test or missed curfew. They contend those people do not pose a public safety risk and should instead be put into drug programs or other programs.

‘Common Sense Recommendations’

Additionally, on Tuesday more than 30 current and former parole executives from across the country posted an open letter urging corrections officials nationwide to “suspend or severely limit technical violations for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.”

The group, which includes former city Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, also called on officials to reduce parole terms to limit the number of people on probation or parole to only those absolutely necessary.

“Policymakers should immediately enact the common sense recommendations contained in this statement to help flatten the coronavirus curve,” Schiraldi said in a separate statement.

It costs the city about $190 million annually to keep detainees locked up due to technical violations, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. City stats show parolees held on violations are the only growing population in a shrinking city jail system.

The number of people re-jailed for violations has steadily gone up since 2014, state records show. There were 726 such people in city custody as of November, the highest total since 2013.

The increase comes as the overall jail population has gone down from about 10,000 in 2015 to 5,396 last month.

A bill is pending in Albany to limit the circumstances under which parolees could be re-jailed and strip parole officers of the ability to do so over technical violations.

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