Through our research and weekly debates with those held at Rikers, we’ve come to heightened awareness of some of the issues facing those who become entangled with the criminal justice system. Here we mention a few of these issues. Rikers Debate Project Volunteers and Students not only work on debate class, but also help advocate for change around criminal justice issues. If you’d like to join a work group to help with actions around any of the things below (or just to learn more), please fill out our intake form at rikersdebateproject.org/get-involved
Voting Rights for Prisoners: The Rikers Debate Project believes everyone should have the right to vote, including the incarcerated. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers are currently disenfranchised because of their felony status, losing their vital voice in our society. This affront to basic rights extends even to people who have already left prison. In order to better rehabilitate and empower our students, we will be working with legislators and community organizations to allow our students and all of the incarcerated to vote once again.
Raise the Age: New York has been one of only two states which treat 16 and 17-year-old teenagers as adults, trying them in adult courts and placing them in adult facilities. We are very happy to see that following the efforts of legislators and the Raise the Age campaign, with the participation of many advocacy groups, New York state has recently passed a bill which changes this (see detailed info here).
In the future, 16 and 17-year-olds who are accused of misdemeanors (and many accused of felonies) will be tried in Family Court and placed in juvenile facilities. As of October 2018, no youth under 18 will be held on Rikers island.
While this is a big step forward, the Raise the Age campaign notes that there is still work to do in ensuring that teenagers receive age-appropriate treatment.
Solitary Confinement: On any given day, 4,500 people are in “restricted housing” in New York, meaning that they spend 22 hours along in a cell slightly bigger than an elevator, for at least 15 consecutive days. There’s ample evidence that the practice causes psychological break-down, and 40% of suicides are committed by people held in solitary confinement. Human Rights Watch, along with many other humanitarian groups, has called for banning or significantly reducing the practice. In the past few years, Rikers ended the practice of solitary confinement for 16-18-year-olds being held there and committed to ending it for 19-21 year-olds as well.
The story of Kalief Browder raised awareness of the need for pretrial reform in New York (and nationwide). Browder was held for three years at Rikers, accused of stealing a backpack, and the court delayed and delayed (he refused to plead guilty). He was held in solitary confinement, and when his charges were finally dropped and he went home, he killed himself.
At Rikers, about 80% of detainees have not been convicted a crime, but are often held for months to years. Of those assigned bail by a judge, only 10% are able to pay. This two-tiered system, in which those with money can walk free, and those who do not languish in jail, seems to many to defy the principle that we are all “innocent until proven guilty.”
Bronx Freedom Fund and Brooklyn Bail Fund are two groups in New York who pay the bail for those who can’t afford it (they’re restricted to paying bail amounts under $2,000). Bronx Freedom Fund notes that defendants who await trial in jail are four times more likely to receive a prison sentence than those whose bail is paid. Brooklyn Bail Fund states that 95% of those whose bail they pay return for their court hearings. Both groups accept donations.
Beyond the short-term fix of helping people pay bail, many advocacy groups are working on various ways of reducing the pretrial population. A 2017 report by an independent commission led by Former New York Chief Justice Lippman reviewed ways of reducing the Rikers pretrial population. Pretrial services could be used as opposed to holding people in Rikers, in many cases. Currently, state lawmakers are considering legislation to speed up trials (including “Kalief’s law”). Advocacy groups such as JustLeadershipUSA and Katal Center are pushing for this legislation as one way to reforming how we treat pretrial detainees in New York.