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Rikers Island Physician Voices Coronavirus Fears As Cuomo Meets With Officials Looking To Scuttle Bail Reforms

Late Wednesday, the chief physician at the Rikers jail complex said on Twitter that judges and prosecutors must not leave New York City’s jailed population ‘in harm’s way.’

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo met Wednesday with prosecutors, criminal justice advocates, and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea to discuss rolling back the state’s bail reforms, even as the chief physician for the Rikers Island jail complex implored judges and prosecutors to release as many people “as you possibly can” because of the risks posed by COVID-19

The reforms, which went into effect on Jan. 1, prohibit judges from setting cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, including all drug charges. In the majority of cases, judges must release people with a written promise that they will come back for a later court date. 

Though the reforms have helped ensure that people will not be incarcerated pretrial because of their inability to pay, they have faced opposition from police and conservative legislators who have said the changes will endanger the public. There has been no data to back up that assertion, however; researchers have found that the longer a person is in jail, the more likely they are to commit another crime after being released. 

On Wednesday, as the number of novel coronavirus cases in New York exceeded 2,000, Cuomo said of the meeting, “We talked. We spoke to the issue,” according to the New York Daily News. “There is a divergence of opinion. … Obviously there’s people who have different opinions on what needs to be done and it was just a general conversation without a conclusion. It will be concluded in the budget.”

There are around 60,000 people incarcerated in New York jails and prisons. Experts have warned that they are extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus due to their close living quarters along with pre-existing conditions, and limited access to sanitation products and healthcare.

Late Wednesday, Ross MacDonald, the chief physician at Rikers Island jail complex, tweeted that judges and prosecutors must not leave the city’s jailed population “in harm’s way.” He added that his team has been rigorously preparing for the outbreak, “but we cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom.”

“We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can,” he said.

Criminal justice advocates have also called for the release of people who are incarcerated and for judges to show heightened discretion when deciding how much to set bail for, if at all. 

Earlier this week, leaders of the Assembly and state Senate health committees penned a letter to legislators, urging them to rethink any changes to the state’s bail laws during the coronavirus pandemic. “Increased pre-trial detention is a massive health risk not only to those who are in jail but to the families and community to which they return and to the jail and court personnel,” wrote Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and Senator Gustavo Rivera. 

Scott Hechinger, a Brooklyn public defender, called any discussions about knocking back the bail laws “outrageous.” 

“NY Governor Cuomo, right now, is spending precious Coronavirus response time ‘huddled’ with prosecutors & police to discuss changing the state’s bail law in a way that will incarcerate *more people.* This is deeply, deeply disturbing behavior,” he wrote on Twitter.