To Help Close Rikers, City Bets on a Growing Alternative to Bail

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A housing unit at the Rikers Island jail complex

A few months ago, a 60-something man was arrested in Brooklyn on a drug charge. As he waited in court for his arraignment, he worried he’d get sent to Rikers Island.

"I wasn’t working full-time," he recalled. "So if bail would’ve been set, a minimum amount, I’d probably still be incarcerated." 

But that didn’t happen. The man, who asked that WNYC call him Richard to protect his identity and privacy, qualified for what’s called supervised release. It lets certain defendants accused of nonviolent crimes meet with case workers on a regular basis before their trials instead of having to post bail — which many can't afford.

Proponents see supervised release as an important form of criminal justice reform, and a way to help the city reduce the population of Rikers. It was first used in Manhattan and Queens. Last April, the city expanded supervised release to the other boroughs with $17.8 million from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. 

Through the end of February, 91 percent of all participants in supervised release citywide did not miss a single court appearance, according to city data. That includes Richard. By comparison, the city said about 87 percent of those who do post bail or who are released without any conditions return to court. And the rearrest rate for both groups was comparable, about 17 percent.

Miriam Popper, program director at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said this data is promising because her program is aimed at defendants who would normally be subject to bail because of their risk of flight — and might not be expected to have such a high return rate.

"The most common charges we get coming in are property and drug crimes," she explained. "And they’re certainly not first-time offenders."

When someone is arrested, a judge considers their risk of flight when deciding whether to set bail. Those with a minimal risk are released on their own recognizance. Those with a moderate risk, but not too high, are now considered eligible for supervised release. The city's Criminal Justice Agency uses a risk assessment tool to examine their criminal history. 

Once a defendant is deemed eligible, a support agency screens them in time for their arraignment. "What we’re looking for is a community tie," said Jonathan Monsalve, deputy project director at Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, a project of the Center for Court Innovation, which is currently managing 150-200 clients in supervised release.

Prosecutors can always object to a defense attorney's request for supervised release. Michael Yavinsky, the supervising judge for the Kings County criminal courthouse, estimates he’s granted supervised release in more than half the eligible cases he’s seen.

"As far as I can tell the return rate is outstanding," he said.

Those in supervised release check in with caseworkers at least once a month, depending on their risk of flight.

The program isn't without concerns. Some defense attorneys worry it's including people who might otherwise be released on their own recognizance — though the city denies this. Last year, the Daily News reported on a man who was granted supervised release despite being charged with beating a parks department employee. The Brooklyn district attorney had chosen to charge him with a misdemeanor; if it had been a felony he wouldn’t have qualified for supervised release.

There are also some who think the program is too small. Since its expansion last year, almost 3,000 people were given supervised release citywide.  

"It’s a drop in the bucket," said Queens Councilman Rory Lancman, who chairs the committee on courts.

Even though the population of Rikers has fallen to less than 10,000 people on any given day, many more cycle in and out. Lancman noted that a 2014 court report found 85 percent of defendants with bail set at $1,000 or less could not come up with the money and were held in jail. 

The Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice is adding more than $2 million to increase the number of people in supervised release by about 10 percent this year.

Popper said she's waiting for an outside study before adding more slots and qualifying offenses — such as domestic violence — because those defendants would require a lot more support. "We’re going to take some time to make sure we do it right," she said.