District 24 Council Member Rory Lancman // Photo Courtesy of Rory Lancman

LANCMAN: Supervised Release Is Answer For ‘Fairer and Sensible’ Justice System

Council Member Rory I. Lancman

New York City’s bail system is costly, inefficient and unjust. Everyday, thousands of people languish on Rikers Island, who have not been found guilty of any crime, solely because they cannot afford to pay bail. In essence, these individuals are stuck in jail, not because they are too dangerous to release, but because they cannot afford to buy their freedom.

Until a few years ago, there was no solution to combat this crisis. Today, however, the answer is supervised release.

Supervised release began as a pilot project in Queens and Manhattan, before expanding citywide in 2016, with the goal of giving judges a viable alternative to bail that ensures defendants show up in court. The program allows some defendants to remain in their community while their case is ongoing, but provides supervision by a social worker several times a month and connects them to voluntary programs and services. In essence, supervised release is a compromise: the defendant is not trapped on Rikers Island struggling to make bail, but they must comply with the program’s requirements.

In order to determine who qualifies for supervised release, service providers conduct a formal risk assessment to identify individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. Only individuals charged with misdemeanor or nonviolent felony offenses that do not involve domestic violence are even eligible to be considered for supervised release. And the ultimate decision about whether a defendant can participate is up to a judge.

In the two years since the city expanded its supervised release program, we have seen clear evidence that the initiative works. The Vera Institute found that more than 4,200 individuals enrolled in supervised release in 2017, with 92 percent making all of their court dates and 95 percent avoiding a felony re-arrest. Instead of losing their housing, their job, or custody of their children because they are stuck on Rikers, these men and women have been able to live their lives while their fight their court cases.

That is great news. At a time when the city is focused on reducing the population at Rikers Island, we should double down on what is working–and that means expanding supervised release.

Last month, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, also known as the Lippman Commission, released a new policy report to urge the city to increase funding to expand its supervised release program. In light of the success of the current program, the City should make this funding a priority.

An expansion would allow more of those who already qualify to enroll and include the creation of an enhanced program pairing broader eligibility with more substantial requirements. For instance, someone with fewer community ties who might seem less likely to return to court could be released with increased monitoring. Or a teenager charged with a robbery, which is considered a violent felony even if no one is injured, could receive interventions to get back on the right track instead of being ripped away from family and community. That particular expansion is already being tried on a small scale in a pilot program just launched in Brooklyn with funding from the City Council.

The Commission makes clear that an expansion of supervised release depends on the justice system itself. Judges must be willing to use it and confident that it can produce sensible outcomes; prosecutors and defense attorneys must be educated about what supervised release and who could be eligible for it.

If New York City is truly committed to making our justice system fairer and sensible for taxpayers, then expanding supervised release must be our way forward.

Rory I. Lancman represents City Council District 24, which includes Kew Gardens Hills, Pomonok, Electchester, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood, Parkway Village, Jamaica Hills, Jamaica, Kew Gardens Hills, Pomonok, Electchester, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood, Parkway Village, Jamaica Hills, Jamaica.

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