Who’s in jail? Three Democratic members of Congress — New York’s Carolyn Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Maryland’s Jamie Raskin — want you to think that Rikers Island is filled with innocent souls too poor to make bail.
Earlier this week, the trio sent a misleading letter to the city’s five district attorneys. Maloney, AOC, and Raskin make two deceptive claims. First, the number of people in jail, 5,400 marks a “steep increase” from last year. Second, “more than three-quarters of individuals in custody” are there “simply because they cannot afford cash bail.”
A person reading this letter would naturally think that New York has been throwing people in jail on minor charges since the pandemic started.
On the first count, 5,400 is only a “steep increase” because the city released so many inmates in the early days of the pandemic. Historically, the jail population is at a record low. And it’s not exactly ancient history. In 2019, the average jail population was 7,365. In 2018, it was 8,397. In 2017, it was 9,266.
And so on and so on. Save for a few aberrant months during the spring and summer of 2020 — months after which violent crime surged — New York’s jails have never had such low populations. On the second count, why are people in jail? Sure, it’s narrowly true that most of them can’t afford bail.
But the DAs have set high bail for a reason. As of October, 72 percent of Rikers inmates — 3,980 people — were there on a violent-felony charge. Another 13 percent were there on another serious felony charge. (The remainder are serving short sentences after conviction, or in on parole violations.)
Just 171 — three percent — were there on a misdemeanor. One-third of people jailed in October for such charges, in the course of allegedly committing their misdemeanor, had violated active parole. Of course, suspects facing arrests on minor, non-violent charges should be processed and released as quickly as possible. Of the 1,946 misdemeanor suspects processed through Rikers this year, 88 percent are now free. But that Rikers, over the summer, kept some such people languishing for weeks is due to one thing: de Blasio’s own incompetence in managing the jail complex.
Do violent suspects face high bail? Some do —and for good reason. In September, Tyrik Mott, whose car had a long history of violations for recklessness, was speeding, ignoring traffic signals, and driving the wrong way (without a license) when he allegedly ran into and killed 3-month-old Apolline Mong Guillemin in her stroller in Brooklyn. Mott then tried to steal another car to escape.
Mott faces a slew of violent-felony charges — and the Brooklyn DA secured $150,000 bail. Last week, Mott made his bail, and walked free, for now.
Is Mott dangerous? Well, Guillemin’s parents think so: over the weekend, a volunteer read a statement from them at a Families for Safe Street event decrying the fact that the alleged “reckless driver” is “currently out of jail despite 100 unpaid traffic violations.”
But the state, in “reforming” bail two years ago, still doesn’t allow judges to consider a danger standard. All New York has, to keep dangerous suspects behind bars, is cash bail.
Do Maloney and AOC have an alternative idea?
Or perhaps they agree with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who defended his advocacy for letting people out of jail in stark terms.
Chisholm’s office is under fire for letting repeat offender Darrell Brooks out of custody on only $1,000 bail despite his rap sheet, allowing him to allegedly kill five by driving through a Wisconsin Christmas parade.
Prosecutors now say that was an “inappropriately low” amount, yet in 2007, Chisholm told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he willing to accept just such a tradeoff.
“Is there going to be an individual I divert, or I put into treatment program, who’s going to go out and kill somebody? You bet,” he said. “Guaranteed. It’s guaranteed to happen. It does not invalidate the overall approach.”
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.