What we've been able to demonstrate is that releases can be done safely and help the people who are getting released.
MAY 05, 2020—The infection rate from COVID-19 in New York City's Rikers Island jails is currently more than 25 times the rate for the United States as a whole. In March, as the city struggled to get people out from behind bars—criticized both for moving too slowly, and for contemplating releasing anyone early from a jail sentence—it turned to a trio of nonprofits, including the Center for Court Innovation, to repurpose a successful program on the fly.
That program—Supervised Release—pairs social workers with people awaiting trial in the community. It has already kept thousands of people off Rikers Island.
The urgency of supporting people released abruptly from jail in the midst of a pandemic is clear, but so are the challenges. And as more than 300 people have now been released successfully into supervision under the program's auspices, the experience also raises the question: what happens to criminal justice when the virus ends?
On this episode of New Thinking, hear from three of the people leading the Rikers Early Release program: Aubrey Fox is the executive director of New York City's Criminal Justice Agency; Giles Malieckal is the senior director of pretrial services at CASES; and Adam Mansky is the director of criminal justice at the Center for Court Innovation.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
SFX: conference call
Matt WATKINS: That’s still the sound of work right now at the Center for Court Innovation and welcome to another socially distanced episode of New Thinking. I’m Matt Watkins, recording from my home in Brooklyn—New York City.
As of May 2nd, the COVID-19 infection rate in New York City’s Rikers Island jails was almost five times the rate of the city as a whole and close to 30 times the rate for the entire US.
That’s according to data compiled by the Legal Aid Society that I’ll link to on the episode page.
One way the city has been getting people off Rikers Island is by turning to nonprofits.
Three nonprofits—the Center for Court Innovation, the Criminal Justice Agency, and CASES—have been running a program called “supervised release” city-wide for four years now. It’s designed to keep people out of jail awaiting trial. Instead of bail, that many people can’t afford, they get supervision from social workers to help them make their court appearances, and referrals to voluntary services covering everything from mental health to housing.
That program has made a real dent in the city’s pretrial jail population and was expanded significantly as part of New York State’s recent bail reforms.
Now it’s been pressed into service on short notice to combat a public health emergency. And all of this while there’s been pushback in certain quarters against the idea of letting anyone out early from Rikers.
To talk about how the early release program was put together on the fly, in the midst of a pandemic, I spoke with three of the folks leading that effort: Aubrey Fox is the executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, Giles Malieckal, the senior director of pretrial services at CASES, and my colleague, Adam Mansky, is the director of criminal justice at the Center for Court Innovation.
I started by asking Aubrey to talk about just how quickly they had to get everything up and running.
Aubrey FOX: The providers all had a conversation, I think it was March 21st, the Saturday. We wanted to discuss what could we do potentially to support all of the important work the city was doing, including what we were hearing about the potential of people being released from Rikers. And at that point we were having preliminary conversations, and then later that night we got an urgent summons from our partners at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice who said, "we're about to release hundreds of people from Rikers who are on city sentence, meaning they have some time left in their jail sentence. We want to release them to supervised release, can you do that?"
And so we spent the next 24 to 48 hours hastily putting together protocols and thinking through how we would basically design an entirely new approach. We had never worked with sentenced individuals before. We hadn't worked at Rikers Island, and this is a completely new population, so we had to really build this on the fly.
WATKINS: Similar story for you, Giles, at CASES?
Giles MALIECKAL: Yeah, I think it was a really amazing, high-pressure experience. We were really understanding the gravity of what we're being asked to embark on. I think it really, for me, I think highlighted the collaboration and a lot of the ways that we— the three organizations that do supervised release—have been able to work so well together. And that really was a process I think that started in earnest around the expansion and bail reform. And then this was an opportunity where we could really put it to work and get that large amount of work done in a short period of time.
WATKINS: Adam, Aubrey mentioned that supervised release, obviously you've never worked with people directly off Rikers Island. What were some of the challenges of trying to, not only do this work at Rikers, but do this work at Rikers in the midst of a pandemic where Rikers was quickly becoming an epicenter of it within New York City?
Adam MANSKY: Well, much of our work has been about making connections with the individual defendants or clients. So, it literally means being in the courtroom and meeting with the person as their case is being resolved, or as they're being sent to us for supervised release, for us to start the process of speaking with them and connecting with them.
And here we were with a situation where everything had pretty much moved to remote, where we were being told people we're going to be released from Rikers Island and there was no sense of predictability for how that would happen. And we developed really pretty great protocols for how we could be connected to each person who was getting released, each sentenced person.
And the truth is that, unfortunately, in the moment as people were being released, I would say that it was much trickier in practice. What ended up happening was that, our staff, all of our staffs, were ready on call for the weekend staying up overnight ready to receive calls from the newly-released people.
And, actually, it did happen overnight—many people were released as late as three or four in the morning. And some people were released without the close contact information being passed to us. So that really then led to a lot of work on our part to try and figure out how to reach the people who have been released to us.
FOX: I just wanted to underscore the institutional challenge that we faced that Giles and Adam have really well sketched out. As supervised release providers, we're used to working in pretty stable environments. And so, in this instance, we didn't have any of that control over our environment. We couldn't interact directly with the client in this case.
It was a completely new place where they were being released from, and they were being released at all hours of the day and night. And so, it really was a scramble for us to see what parts of the supervised release model we could maintain. And I'm pretty proud and impressed that, in the scramble, we were able to make a model that seems to work, because it is based on this connection between the client and their case manager.
And there's no connection without the ability to reach the person in question. I give credit to our staffs collectively, who have been working, in some cases, seven days a week because there's a requirement for a daily check-in as part of this program. But also to the city, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, and the Department of Correction for working in partnership with us to make the handoff as smooth as possible.
WATKINS: And Giles, what are you guys finding out are people's greatest needs right now being released? People getting released at the best of times from Rikers Island often have some pretty serious needs. I can imagine those are just exaggerated right now under COVID-19.
MALIECKAL: Yeah,absolutely. I think you couldn't state that any more clearly. I think our primary focus was really to get a really good understanding of really what people's needs were. And I think that helped us develop a better understanding of what motivates them to stay connected with us and what helps them maintain compliance.
And what we were learning was that a lot of these people had a range of needs from the most basic needs of a place to go—we had situations where people were coming out of Rikers and not being permitted back to where they were living before, becoming homeless unexpectedly. So, it was from the very most basic needs of just necessities to, really, I think a lot of people were really struggling with finding employment and just the limited employment opportunities that were out there.
And then seeing what other alternate plans they may need to get put into place before they may be work-ready. Maybe connecting to treatment or anything just as a supportive service.
MANSKY: We saw some people with very basic needs including food insecurity and even clothing—released only with the clothes that they had and not having access to a change of clothes.
As Aubrey said, this is a pretrial supervision program, an alternative to pretrial detention essentially. And those programs exist in many places. But our focus is very much clinical and although we bring rigorous compliance standards to making sure that people are checking in as they're supposed to and that they're making their court appearances, we really see this as an opportunity to help stabilize some very much at-risk people.
We do that through using social workers and case managers as the people providing the supervision. And so, we're always looking at the clients we’re serving through a lens of “what needs do they have and how can we better serve them.”
WATKINS: One of the needs that social workers identified was for some people, they simply needed a phone. In order to be able to participate in this kind of remote supervision.
MANSKY: There were a number of people being released who had no access to phones, and certainly in the time of COVID, I think we're all finding that we are able to manage things differently with technology than we might have in a different time.
We've done some research looking at the people that were providing the supervised release programming to and found that something like 30 percent of our clients didn't have access to phones. And again, I just want to credit the collaboration with the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice as well as with CJA and CASES who pitched in. You guys had already lined up phones and you guys pretty much all shared them with all of the clients who needed them, and we really appreciated it, that contribution. And that's been incredibly important to the success of the program.
And I also want to take a moment to credit our partner at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, Miriam Popper, who on a moment's notice drove in from some remote location, hustled in when people started getting released, or when they had notice that people were going to get released, and spent 14 hours or something on Rikers Island to help facilitate the process. I think that was pretty impressive. She went the extra mile.
FOX: Just backing up for a minute, one of the nice things about this project, because you can see there's sort of a thread that connects all these very micro moments where we're trying to make the logistics work. But if you look at the macro level, in just a matter of weeks, you've had basically 25 percent of the Riker's Island population, jail populations, just empty.
We're down now to a jail population that hasn't been seen since 1949. And that's incredible, you have a jail population reduction of about 1600 people.
One of the things that we've been looking at is historical analogies and the closest one we can come up with is in the early 80's, there was a federal judge who basically ordered that 600 people be released from Rikers to ease overcrowding.
And at the time there were 10,000 people at Rikers. That's about 6 percent of the population. And this decision that the city was forced into and reluctantly complied with, basically tied the city into knots for months and even years. It was hugely controversial, very big issue in the tabloid press. People were concerned about public safety impact, and yet you had more people to choose from, since there were about twice as many people in Rikers at that point and you were only releasing 6 percent of the population.
And the decision the city made at the time, because they were so reluctant to cooperate, was essentially to do nothing. They didn't gather contact information, they didn't provide supervision or support for those individuals. And when my agency back in the 80's did an evaluation of the program, it didn't do very well in terms of re-arrest rates and court appearance rates, with subsequent court dates—the outcomes were kind of dismal.
I'm happy to say that the city learned its lesson from that program and has really tried to surround as much as possible. Yeah, we're in the midst of a pandemic and there are certain things that you just can't provide, but I think the city deserves credit for learning the lesson of the compulsory release program in the 80's that that didn't operate so effectively. And it has tried to surround the people being released today with as much support and supportive services as possible. And it's early days, but I think the results that we're seeing are very promising.
WATKINS: So, in the 1980s, you didn't have teams of dedicated social workers working with people being released off Rikers. Now we do, but there has been some pushback in the press and from other places about this idea of releasing people. What can we say so far about the results?
MANSKY: I think it's been interesting because the media, maybe at the prompting of some unhappy sources, immediately started talking about, writing about, how people were being released and they were committing crimes right, left, and center, and many people were getting re-arrested and sent back to jail. And in fact, what we've seen is quite the opposite.
Just to give a bit of a snapshot: I think about 312 or more people were released to us—and when I say us, I mean all three agencies. And after a month of programming, really only two percent had been re-arrested, which is about seven people. And of those there were only three felonies, which are pretty great numbers.
And in addition, it took us a little bit to get in touch with everyone, but in fact, we've been able to reach many of the people. The overall program compliance is 92 percent. And so, people are staying in touch and they are doing what they're supposed to. And the program itself is pretty rigorous. The city requires that the person is in touch with us every single day. We have done thousands, collectively, we've done something, I don't know how many thousand, 6,000, phone calls with people. And we again see that as an opportunity to connect, to identify needs they're having and to connect them with services.
MALIECKAL: Kind of what we've seen is that this program really just requires persistence, and it really has paid off over time. I was reviewing some files and noticing that the staff are really being creative. When we think about engagement and doing that work all over the phone, they've been doing different things.
Finding ways to get in touch with someone can sometimes depend on developing some trust with someone who's close to the participant, and that person lending credibility and eventually making contact with the person. So, it can take a lot of the social service version of elbow grease to really get in touch with that person. And then, once we make that connection, it's a lasting one and it stays firm for the remainder of the time they're in the program.
FOX: Just adding to this some more, my assessment of the staff—the case managers working on the project, the social workers who work for supervised release—is that they feel a special sense of responsibility here. They know how much scrutiny there is for these releases. They know how urgent the request was for supervised release to help with this new population and this new way.
And I think they feel a genuine sense of having skin in the game, that they need to make this work. And so, it's not necessarily rocket science what we're doing: making sure you have a phone number, calling people, calling collateral contacts, trying to reach someone through their aunt, or their mother, or someone else that they're connected to in their lives, offering help, offering assistance, getting phones to people—we can go on and on and on.
But the point is that the incentives are really aligned here where the city can turn to supervised release and know that we will basically not let any stone unturned in trying to make this work.
MANSKY: And again, I'll just add the collaboration, because I recall just a couple of Friday evenings ago, we got a call from the city saying that we needed to issue letters to everyone who was non-compliant, which was a fairly small number, but to let them know that if they don't get it in compliance, they could get picked up and returned to Rikers. And it was a late Friday evening and we had to make an extra effort to reach out to anyone we could, the people who had not been compliant, to reach out to their family members and so forth.
And I really do want to thank you, Aubrey, and Joann from your team, who offered to help my agency, the Center for Court Innovation, just put in an extra round of calls to the people that are our clients, just to try one extra bit to help that contact. And it was able to get an extra person back into compliance. Again, that's kind of a very positive spirit.
WATKINS: Collectively, are you all able to accept more people into this program or do you know what to expect at this point?
FOX: The reason that we're taking people who have an unexpired portion of their jail sentence is because the city has the legal authority through the Commissioner of Corrections to release them before their jail sentence is complete to the community. And that has certain requirements. And so that authority was used in this emergency situation.
But there are lots of other reasons why people are at Rikers—they may be held there on pretrial detention or they're held there on a parole violation. And in those instances, the authority to release them may rest with the state agency in the case of parole, or if you're held on pretrial detention, it has to be a judge's decision.
There aren't that many sentenced people left, but there have been discussions at various points about a smaller number of additional people being released to our program. And I think as this continues, we have made ourselves available for people who are held pretrial—judges in individual instances can make the decision to release someone to supervised release.
WATKINS: And what would you each say that you have learned the most from this really rapid response in what everyone is correctly calling unprecedented times?
MALIECKAL: I think being flexible with the situation and having teams that are just so dedicated that they're willing to just make some sacrifices. When you make a policy for seven days a week contact, you can make the policy, but we're the people who have to deliver that and figure out how that works with our staffing. And also, what makes the best situation for the person in the program and how that can affect them.
So I think our staff have just been so enthused and, really to echo what Aubrey was mentioning, just about the sense of dedication that the staff really have for all their clients, but also particularly for this group, I think just made this all possible, and provided such a great opportunity for people who may otherwise really be in a potentially terrible health situation.
WATKINS: And Adam, is there a big takeaway for you?
MANSKY: There's the bigger question. We now see that confinement—jail—is literally toxic. And as a result, there's been a tremendous effort by the city and by, really, New York City's robust network of nonprofit providers, social service providers, to help get as many people out of there as possible.
It could certainly happen faster and there are probably more people who can and should be released. But I think what we've been able to demonstrate is that actually it can be done safely, and help the people who are getting released. I guess the question is, should anyone put the genie back in the bottle?
We don't know what the world's going to look like after this. But will people default to jail as frequently as they had in the past. It's certainly been changing in New York City. What we're learning here in New York City, are there lessons that are applicable elsewhere, including this collaboration of providing closely monitored supervision but that is anchored in social services and a clinical approach to help keep people in the community. So, I think that's a big question.
FOX: That's such an important point. We haven't talked about "traditional supervised release" so much, but one of the things that may get lost in the situation we're dealing with now is, we had a major change to the state's bail reform statute that took effect in January.
So, before all of that expansion, supervised release might be the option, pretrial release option, in something like 3 to 4 percent of all judicial decisions where there was a continued case, the case wasn't resolved at arraignment.
Now in the first few months of 2020, that zoomed up to closer to 20 percent. That's an enormous increase. And I would assume that when we get back to normal-ish business, that supervised release is going to continue to have this predominant role.
There are so many interesting stories that are getting buried in everyone's understandable focus on COVID-19. But supervised release has really had an incredible trajectory from more or less a pilot in 2009, to city-wide expansion in 2016, to where it stood in the first few months of 2020, when, just to cite one example, then I'll stop talking is that, for the very first time in the city's history, you were more likely to be given supervised release as a pretrial release outcome than monetary bail.
That started happening in the early part of this year. That's really a landmark event if you're thinking, “how do we reduce the use of pretrial detention as much as possible?” And so, I think we'll go back to kind of playing that role and assuming that role in the near future.
WATKINS: That was my conversation with Aubrey Fox, the last voice you heard, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Agency; Giles Malieckal, the senior director of pretrial services at CASES; and Adam Mansky, the director of criminal justice at the Center for Court Innovation. For more information about today's episode, go to courtinnovation.org/newthinking.
Special thanks for their help with this one to Tia Pooler and Camille Wada. I produced and edited what you heard today, with remote technical support from the punctual Bill Harkins. Samiha Meah is our director of design. Emma Dayton is our VP of outreach. Our theme music is by Michael Aharon at quivernyc.com. And our show’s founder is Rob Wolf. This has been New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I’m Matt Watkins. Thanks for listening—and stay safe.