Rikers Lockups Stay Steady Under Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, Vexing Reformers
Jail admissions keep pace with predecessor Cy Vance while bail amounts go up — prompting demands for the new district attorney to shake up the office.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg won election pledging to shrink the population of people held pre-trial on Rikers Island. But so far in Bragg’s first weeks in office, the number of new jail admissions has remained more or less the same as under his predecessor Cyrus Vance.
And while his prosecutors are demanding bail less often, in the felony cases where they do request it they are asking judges to set it at much higher levels than before.
From the time Bragg took office Jan. 1 through the first week of February, on average each week about 73 defendants from Manhattan cases have been sent to jail, a slight increase from the roughly 66 defendants sent weekly over the three months before, according to data compiled by the Vera Institute, a criminal justice research organization.
The DA is requesting bail in 40% of felony cases for a median $47,500 — nearly twice as much as the $25,000 during Vance’s last two years, when the DA asked for bail in as many as 56% of cases.
The entries to jail from Manhattan have stayed steady even as a crisis of violence and chaos persists on Rikers. With arraignments coming in at a faster pace this January than they did a year ago, the numbers suggest Bragg has been hard pressed to deliver quickly on pledges to decarcerate.
“I’m upset. I watched the town halls and read what he had spoken about at his political rallies. He seemed genuine,” said Eileen Maher, who has been incarcerated at Rikers and is a leader with the VOCAL-NY Civil Rights Union.
She urged Bragg to fire prosecutors who are not on board with his promises to reduce pretrial incarceration. Bragg’s office has seen relatively small turnover, in contrast to the mass firing of staff when another high-profile reformer, Larry Krasner, took over as district attorney in Philadelphia.
“Everybody knows Manhattan is the worst,” said Maher. “They just want to send people to prison. They don’t believe in any kinds of alternatives to incarceration, so as the DA he needs to step in. He’s the big boss and if you don’t like it, ‘Goodbye.’”
Defense attorneys say that they have yet to see much of a difference in the courtroom.
“When District Attorney Bragg was coming into office we were feeling extremely optimistic based on the policies he had said he was going to implement,” said Libby Fischer, managing attorney for the Neighborhood Defender Services’ Criminal Defense Practice. “But so far in practice his prosecutors are continuing to push to send our clients to jail just as much as the previous administration.”
In an email, a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office pointed out that judges ultimately decide on bail and noted that January of 2022 saw almost 300 more total arraignments than in January of 2021.
The District Attorney’s Office also argued that its typically higher bail requests made sense since the office now only asks for bail in its most serious cases.
“Impactful, thoughtful reform takes more than six weeks, and we look forward to sharing statistically significant data that accurately reflects the Office’s record,” said Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office. “Drawing conclusions solely based off of weekly jail admission numbers when crime and prosecutions are also up in Manhattan is not analytically sound.”
A New Climate
Last year, Bragg ran and won as a progressive. But as he was just getting settled in his office, the political climate was shifting.
New Mayor Eric Adams helped draw significant press attention to a series of high-profile shootings: an infant killed in The Bronx, a teenager slain during her shift at a Burger King in East Harlem and two police officers fatally shot after responding to a domestic disturbance in Harlem.
In the wake of such gun violence, Adams has been pressing for a rollback to state bail reforms and to allow judges to jail some defendants they deem dangerous.
At the same time, Bragg became a target for pro-law enforcement forces.
A Jan. 3 memo from Bragg detailing crimes his office will not prosecute and declaring pretrial detention will be used only “for very serious cases” served as fuel for the firestorm.
After weeks of unrelenting criticism, including from the NYPD’s new commissioner, by late January, the new top prosecutor said he took “full accountability” for confusion caused by an “unclear and legalistic” memo.
And Bragg continues to feel the heat as he interacts with constituents, including at a Community Board 7 meeting on Feb. 1 on the Upper West Side. There he got an earful from members concerned about neighborhood safety.
“This past week I actually was verbally accosted to the point that I physically ran across the street because I was afraid of the man who was screaming atrocities at me,” Megan Martin, a member of the board, told Bragg. “It’s what you would call, I guess, ‘low level offenses,’ but we don’t consider them low level.”
The DA got a warmer reception at Community Board 9 in Harlem, Bragg’s own neighborhood. Attendees asked Bragg to expand on how he’d tackle violence in the community and to detail on his strategic vision.
He also has support from Democratic Party leaders who helped secure his election in a hotly contested race.
“The guy has been in office less than two months,” noted Barry Weinberg, a board member of the West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club.
Of the opposition campaign to tie the new DA to fears of crime, Weinberg added: “Alvin Bragg is a Black guy that they can use to scare their voters into thinking that we’re going back to the worst days of the 80s and 90s and that’s very racially coded.”
But there are also signs of support beginning to divide among progressives. The People’s Coalition for Manhattan DA’s Accountability, a group affiliated with VOCAL NY, is planning a town hall in March to address Bragg’s perceived step back from the original memo and released a searing statement last week.
“Bowing to pressure from law enforcement after only 33 days in office does not bode well for the rest of his tenure,” the group wrote. “It signals that the commitments to the communities who elected DA Bragg take a backseat to his relationship with the police.”
‘No Easy Cases’
Some current and former Manhattan DA officials argue that Bragg’s continuity with the previous district attorney reflects his predecessor’s unheralded progress in rolling back incarceration. Under Vance’s tenure, the annual number of cases disposed of by guilty plea or trial conviction dropped from just over 98,000 in 2013 to under 35,000 in 2021.
In the same period, the percentage of felony cases in which defendants were held in on bail decreased from 61% to 36%.
“The fact is if a district attorney sets out to reduce the population of city jails, it’s already been reduced so much by the previous DA that it’s not obvious how much more could be done without seriously impacting public safety,” said Daniel R. Alonso, who served under Vance as chief assistant district attorney during his first term.
Other decarceral policies Bragg’s team publicized upon coming into office, such as declining to prosecute fare-beating and marijuana misdemeanors, had largely been achieved years before the new administration took office.
“Much of what is being proposed today was already done by Cy — we invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the community, in re-entry programs, in mental health programs, in youth programs,” said Erin Duggan Kramer, a former senior policy advisor to Vance.
Vance relied heavily on funds forfeited by financial institutions to pay for such programs — money largely depleted by the time Bragg was elected, THE CITY reported in November.
Public defenders note that for Bragg to drive down the jail population further, his office would have to consent to the release of a greater proportion of defendants, including many charged with violent crimes, in the face of immense media scrutiny.
Fischer pointed out that this would require his staff “go beyond the easy cases,” and focus on alternatives to incarceration for those with serious mental health and other behavioral needs.
On the morning of Feb. 15, prosecutors had to contend with one of those messy cases. Jamel Pringle stood before the court, accused of stealing from a Rite Aid the day before.
Anyone watching from the benches could see he was not well. Throughout the hearing, the 39 year-old swung his mop of curly black hair from side to side, seemingly unfazed as a prosecutor read over a litany of his recent criminal allegations in an exasperated tone.
Two weeks earlier he’d been arrested, accused of standing around a CVS on the Upper East Side with his pants and underwear dropped below his waist. He also had two other pending cases, both for allegedly threatening a woman and her child on the street.
In one of the cases, Pringle allegedly ran after them with a sharp wooden stick outside their apartment building.
The prosecutor asked the judge to set $5,000 bail, a request which, if accepted, would effectively guarantee the indigent man would go to jail.
Pringle’s public defender argued there had to be a better way. She pointed out that her client had missed recent court visits because he was coming in and out of the psych ward. “Mr. Pringle doesn’t need punishment. He needs treatment,” she said.
Instead, the public defender insisted, he should be released with access to mental health services. “This is treatment he will not get at Rikers, especially because of the condition that Rikers is in,” she said.
But Judge Rachel Pauley cut her off. “He’s not going to show up,” she said. The judge agreed to the prosecutor’s request for bail.
Before the hearing was finished, court officers dragged Pringle out of the hearing. With his mask dangling below his mouth, he was yelling at the judge, something about a hospital or a program.