Bail Reform & the COVID-19 Pandemic in New York State
WESPAC joins our community partners including Center for Community Alternatives, Citizen Action NY, FWD.us, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights and Color of Change, in New York City who have issued the following fact sheet regarding bail reform and the COVID-19 pandemic in New York State. With confirmed cases of the virus reaching both Sing Sing prison and our county jail here in Westchester County, we need to release any person who does not pose a threat to public safety in order to contain any potential viral outbreak, and we must insist more urgently than ever on no rollbacks to the bail reforms that were passed in 2019 that reduce the numbers of people detained pre-trial.
● COVID-19 will spread “like wildfire” in New York’s jails, putting incarcerated people, staff, and surrounding communities at risk.
○ Jails are uniquely poor sites for stopping or containing viral outbreaks. Social distancing is virtually impossible in the close-quarters of New York’s jails. Hand sanitizer is contraband and access to soap, toilet paper, and handwashing facilities is highly limited.
○ People in jail have disproportionate rates of chronic illnesses that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 40% of incarcerated people suffer from chronic health conditions, including 20% with asthma (versus 11% in the general population).
○ Healthcare in New York’s prisons and jails is chronically inadequate even without a pandemic. In the five years from 2013-2018, 50 people died in New York State prisons from want of adequate medical care. In 2016, India Cummings died in the Erie County jail in a case ruled “homicide by medical neglect.” In 2017, Nassau County renewed its contract with a for-profit company to provide healthcare in its jail, despite state findings that inadequate healthcare by the same company led to the deaths of five people incarcerated in the Nassau County jail in 2015.
● Bail reform rollbacks would exacerbate a public health crisis.
○ New York State made the responsible decision to pass bail reform last session. As a result, there are nearly 7,000 fewer people being held in county jails on any given day.
○ The bail law rollbacks proposed by the Senate Democrats and under consideration by the Governor will increase the number of people in jails and the length of time people will spend in jail. Rolling back bail reform would mean more people unjustly in jail without a trial, which is not only inhumane, but threatens further spread of coronavirus.
○ Many of the people now spared pretrial jailing under New York’s bail reform law would have spent 1-3 days incarcerated pretrial under the prior system. These “short-stays” provide no safety benefit, while destabilizing families, and risking greater spread of COVID-19 in both jails and the surrounding community as thousands more people will cycle in and out of unsanitary, unsafe conditions and back into the community.
● It is not responsible to advance bail reform rollbacks in an “accelerated” budget process.
○ Policy changes should be data-based and deserve a democratic process and thoughtful policy setting. Changes to the bail law will impact tens of thousands of people directly and will have dramatic and poorly understood impacts on the health of all New Yorkers. Pushing through bail reform rollbacks on an accelerated timeline, especially when they have been in effect for less than three months, is not responsible policy-making.
○ In light of the coronavirus and the expedited budget process, there would simply be no way to debate these issues responsibly and democratically, and during a public health crisis, it would be devastating to subject more New Yorkers to the COVID-19 health risks of pretrial incarceration.
○ Bail reform is working. Each day in February 2020, there were 6,800 fewer people incarcerated pretrial in New York’s jails than in February 2019. This is 6,800 people who are not exposed to heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, people who are not subject to the trauma of pretrial jailing or the violation of their constitutional rights.
○ Nationally, healthcare advocates and others are calling for bail reform and decarceration efforts like we have achieved in New York.
● New Yorkers need investments in healthcare, housing and other services
● Governor Cuomo needs to stop trying to put more people in jail by rolling back bail reform and focus on the real problem: A lack of meaningful access to healthcare, programs and services.
KEY RESOURCES & NEWS COVERAGE
1. The Marshall Project: “When Purell is Contraband, How Do You Contain Coronavirus?”
2. New York Times: “Our Courts and Jails Are Putting Lives at Risk”
3. Huffington Post: “Nearly 500,000 People Who Have Not Been Convicted Are In Jail At High Coronavirus Risk”
4. Mother Jones: “To Arrest the Spread of Coronavirus, Arrest Fewer People”
5. Syracuse Post-Standard: “Bail reform causes a big drop – 100 inmates – in Syracuse jail. Reason might surprise you”
6. Justice Collaborative: “Explainer: Prisons and Jails Are Particularly Vulnerable to COVID-19 Outbreaks”
7. The Guardian: “Calls mount to free low-risk US inmates to curb coronavirus impact on prisons”
8. Mother Jones: “Correctional Facilities Are the Perfect Incubators for the Coronavirus”
9. Prison Policy Initiative: “No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform”
10. Human Rights Watch: “US: COVID-19 Threatens People Behind Bars”
11. New York Times: “An Epicenter of the Pandemic Will Be Jails and Prisons, if Inaction Continues”