“We can move forward with closing Rikers Island but reevaluate the sites individually.”Read More
In the days since Council Member Rory Lancman and Queens Senior Executive Assistant District Attorney James Quinn debated about the future of Rikers Island, a specific exchange about Kalief Browder has garnered national attention.
While defending the proposal to close jails on Rikers Island and open four “borough-based” jails, Lancman — a potential candidate in the 2019 Queens DA race — frequently described how the bail system keeps low-income defendants in detention simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.
He cited the experience of Browder, a 16-year-old from the Bronx who was arrested for stealing a backpack and held on Rikers for three years — including two in solitary confinement — because he could not afford to pay his $3,000 bail. Ultimately, Browder’s C Felony charges were dismissed.
Two years after his release from Rikers, Browder committed suicide.
Quinn took issue with what he called the Browder “narrative” that has informed much of the debate about closing Rikers. Browder’s experience has become a symbol of a broader movement to reform the criminal justice system and end the mass incarceration of low-income people of color.
“Kalief Browder committed suicide two years after leaving Rikers,” Quinn said.
Several people in the audience applauded, to which Lancman declared his disgust.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand what people are clapping about,” Lancman said, adding that those who applauded should search “the dark place” within themselves.
Lancman said Browder’s mental health issues, which ultimately contributed to his suicide, were exacerbated by his years in solitary confinement.
The debate and the heated exchange about Browder were first reported by the Queens Daily Eagle last Thursday. The story garnered national attention when The Appeal, a national news outlet focused on the criminal justice system, reported on the exchange about Browder’s death.
On World Suicide Prevention Day, Monday, Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society called on Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to condemn the remarks made by Quinn on behalf of his office.
Luongo criticized Brown for not addressing the comments “where his deputy attempted to downplay the devastating effects that Rikers Island had on Kalief Browder.”
“It reflects a mindset of indifference towards those in our city’s jails — many of whom are detained because of unaffordable bail amounts and excessive charges levied by prosecutors — New Yorkers who are brutalized by staff, and subjected to the torture of solitary confinement, and who are struggling with depression and other mental illness,” Luongo said.
Brown did provide a response in a statement to the Queens Daily Eagle Tuesday.
“At a debate that was supposed to focus on whether Rikers should be repaired or replaced, Councilman Lancman chose to inject the tragic death of Kalief Browder,” Brown said. “ADA James Quinn sought to correct the narrative that had been put forth but in no way minimized the tragedy. ADA Quinn noted that Mr. Browder did not commit suicide while in Rikers, but did so two years after his release. He also noted that Mr. Browder would not have been released even if his bail had been posted, because he was also being held on a violation of probation charge. Attempts to distort, ADA Quinn’s words and their meaning are only intended to cloud the underlying issues.”
Brown also defended Quinn’s record as a “career prosecutor with more than 40 years of experience.”
“He is very well-regarded by his colleagues here in New York City and beyond,” Quinn said. “He began the debate last week by saying that we agree Rikers should be improved and upgraded, but that the current city plan is wasteful, would disrupt the criminal justice system and local neighborhoods for years to come and would delay any reform efforts for years. The same result could be achieved faster and for far less money by building a world-class prison system on Rikers. It is unfortunate that Mr. Lancman chose to inject the tragic death of this young man into a debate over a topic — the rebuilding of our prisons — that deserves far more attention than misleading and emotionally-charged sound bites.”
In a statement, Lancman told the Eagle that Browder’s detention and tragic death are symptoms of a flawed justice system that disproportionately detains low-income people of color in jails and prisons in New York and nationwide.
“The tragedy of Kalief Browder reflects the tragedy that is our broken criminal justice system, where thousands of people — almost all of them people of color — are criminalized for minor offenses or sit in jail solely for want of bail money just to have their day in court,” Lancman said. “Denying Kalief’s tragedy is to deny the burning, urgent need to fix our criminal justice system, and the responsibility of District Attorneys to lead the way in doing so.”
By David Brand
Council Member Rory Lancman faced off against Queens Assistant District Attorney James Quinn in a heated debate about the future of Rikers Island at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills Wednesday night.
Of the many accusations, complicated budget scenarios and impassioned declarations volleyed back and forth between the two men and audience members, one exchange seemed to crystallize the fundamental difference of opinion on the future of the massive jail complex — and on broader criminal justice reform.
During his opening statement, Quinn, speaking for Queens Defense Attorney Richard Brown and the D.A.’s office, critiqued efforts to close Rikers as a “movement.”
“A movement doesn’t look at details,” Quinn said, before outlining budget underestimations and hammering what he considered impracticalities, like where the city would house inmates during the development of four proposed “borough-based” jails.
An hour later, Lancman addressed the specific statement in his closing remarks.
“The effort to close Rikers Island is a movement,” Lancman said. “It’s part of a larger movement to reform a criminal justice system that is dysfunctional, broken and overwhelmingly falls on the backs of poor people.”
The contrasting comments on the Close Rikers movement reflect two sides of the debate evident in the audience and throughout Queens.
Quinn, the Queens D.A.’s office and representatives from local civic associations say closing Rikers is too impractical and costly. The status quo works, they say.
“In my opinion, it would be wiser for the city to refurbish the existing facilities on RIkers Island rather than to spend billions of dollars in demolition and construction costs building new jails,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “These new jails would create havoc in our neighborhoods and disruption in the court system for years to come.
Lancman, however, said that closing Rikers would be cost-effective for the city and his constituents. But he focused most of his attention on the importance of reducing the jail population and moving detainees off the island.
Lancman and criminal justice reform advocates — like the team of Legal Aid Society defense attorneys seated in the third row of the auditorium — say closing Rikers is an inseparable component of a mission to reduce the number of low-income people of color in jail and prison. In Queens and nationwide, people of color make up a vastly disproportionate number of prison inmates and jail detainees.
Many sit in jail simply because they cannot afford to make bail, Lancman said.
“I cannot think of anything that is more worthwhile than building a criminal justice system that is fair,” Lancman said. “The criminal justice system I aspire to is one where no one is sitting in jail because they don’t have the resources to buy their way out.”
Lancman brought up the experience of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old from the Bronx who was arrested for stealing a backpack and held on Rikers for three years — including two in solitary confinement — before his nonviolent C Felony charges were dismissed. Browder could not afford his bail. Two years later, he killed himself.
Quinn took issue with what he called the Browder “narrative” that has informed much of the debate about closing Rikers.
“Kalief Browder committed suicide two years after leaving Rikers,” Quinn said.
Several audience members applauded.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand what people are clapping about,” Lancman said, before encouraging people to “search their consciences.”
Lancman, who is reportedly considering a run for D.A. in 2019, criticized the district attorney’s office for continuing to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses and fare evasion and pointed out that the D.A.s in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx have all come out in favor of closing Rikers.
In August, Mayor Bill de Blasio officially announced the city’s proposal to close Rikers and establish a “borough-based” jail in every borough except Staten Island. The Queens jail would be located at the site of the vacant Queens House of Detention near the criminal courthouse in Kew Gardens.
Before the Department of Corrections stopped detaining inmates at the House of Detention in 2002, the jail had capacity for about 500 inmates.
“It’s not going in Juniper Park, Glen Oaks, Queens College or College Point,” Lancman said. “It’s going where the jail has been.”
The plan depends on the city’s ability to reduce the Rikers population to 5,000. On Aug. 13, the jails held 8,210 people, according to Lancman’s data. That number was 8,258 on Aug. 27, according to Quinn’s data
Lancman said revising the bail system would enable low-income defendants to get off the island.
“Using the bail system to impose judgement on people is an abuse of the criminal justice system,” Lancman said. “These people are not too dangerous to be among us. They’re just too poor.”
Quinn, however, condemned the notion that Rikers detainees are in jail simply because they cannot afford bail.
“People in Rikers belong in Rikers [and] I stand by that,” he said. “They’re remanded because they are dangerous people and because when they are out on the street, they commit more crimes.”
“These are not nice people,” Quinn said later.
Quinn specifically pointed to a statistic that bailable Rikers detainees from Queens County with D Felony, E Felony, and A Misdemeanor charges have, on average, more than 6 previous felony arrests.
“What do you have to do to have six previous felony arrests?” he asked.
“Be black,” one audience member shouted.
The project description posted on the city’s website states that each of the proposed facilities will contain about 1,510 beds in addition to “support space for correctional programming” and therapeutic services, community space and parking.
The support space will feature a “public entrance and lobby, visitation space, space for detainee programs and services, health services, infirmary and therapeutic units, and administrative space,” the description states.
The plan also calls for redeveloping an existing parking lot and adding about 676 new public parking spaces. The public parking structure would be located on the northwestern portion of the project site with an entrance from the Union Turnpike service road, according to the proposal.
The debate often strayed from nuts-and-bolts issues, like the cost and timeframe, which frustrated some attendees.
Audience member Zina Zimmerman told Lancman she attended the event for a conversation on the community impact of jailhouse and parking structure development.
“This is not about race,” Zimmerman said. “It’s about putting a 30-story prison in the [neighborhood].”
But Lancman disagreed.
“It is about race. And I know that’s painful for my fellow white people to hear,” he said. “But the criminal justice system almost exclusively on people color.”
“You cannot separate the close Rikers conversation into the [new] building and then the other stuff,” he continued.
Council Member Rory Lancman debated Assistant District Attorney James Quinn on the future of Rikers Island Wednesday. // Eagle photo by David Brand