Chronic Elderly Non-Violent Recidivists Serving Life Sentences 15 Days At A Time Should Not Be Brought Into Criminal Justice System, Says Legal Aid
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2015

A City study of 800 seniors who are in and out of jail for non-violent offenses because they have no money for bail, have mental health issues, and are serving life sentences 15 days at a time are costing the City millions of dollars.

Irwin Shaw, Attorney-in-Charge of the Manhattan Criminal Defense Office, told WNYC that low-level offenses such as panhandling or being in a park after hours should be handled administratively, like a parking ticket would be.

"Why should they be brought into the criminal justice system?" said Shaw. "Number one, it takes up the time of an assistant district attorney, it takes up the time of a judge, it takes up the time of the defense." And it is an expensive process. Serious recidivists need more medical care than the average inmate. They're also more likely to be sick with withdrawal symptoms. But what costs the most is admitting them to Rikers Island, a jail system struggling to institute reforms.




WNYC
The Frequent Fliers of Riker's Island
By Cindy Rodriguez
November 16, 2015

The sidewalks near Wall Street are prime real estate for panhandlers like 65-year-old Irrae Davis. There are plenty of tourists, office workers and well-heeled banker types who could potentially help a down-on-his-luck man asking for a few bucks.

"I have a sign here and I let them know this is what I need," Davis said one morning earlier this year. "I need a change of clothes, you know."

Davis is well-liked in the area. The guys who clean the streets brought him white sneakers that someone tossed in a garbage can. Someone else left him a bag of purple grapes. He said he's never pushy about asking for help, but the police keep saying he is.

"It isn't right for them to lock me up for nothing, " Davis said. "I'm not asking nobody for nothing. If they give, they give from their heart."

Davis said he sleeps inside a tunnel near the ferry in Staten Island. During the day, he panhandles.

"I do it because I be needing help," he said.

Since 2010 this senior citizen has racked up 56 convictions, was in jail 28 times and spent 446 days behind bars. Davis was arrested five times in three months last year, at the McDonald's on Broadway. Twice police alleged he had a crack pipe on him, but most of the charges were for what's called aggressive begging.

The city has studied 800 people like Davis who go in and out of jail so often it's become a routine part of life. Together, they were admitted to Rikers more than 18,000 times in the last six years and spent more than half-a-million days behind bars, according to an analysis by the city's Bureau of Correctional Health published in the American Journal of Public Health. Within law enforcement, it is said these chronic recidivists are serving life sentences 15 days at a time.

The group is older and sicker than the general jail population, and roughly 95 percent of the top charges against them were for non-violent offenses. They are a vulnerable population within a jail system where inmates prey on the weak.

The study found the following characteristics:

  • 97 percent abuse drugs or alcohol
  • 72 percent are African-American
  • 19 percent had a serious mental illness
  • 52 percent are believed to be homeless
  • 54 percent were charged with petit larceny and/or criminal possession of a controlled substance

Rikers is the end result of a cycle that begins when a police officer makes an arrest, a prosecutor moves forward with charges and a judge sets bail or sentences someone. Nowhere in that process do they address underlying issues like drug addiction and homelessness that plague chronic recidivists. Davis had just left Rikers a few days ago. He couldn't afford the $1000 bail, so he pleaded guilty to get out of jail.

"I stayed in there six days until I went back to court," Davis explained. "When I went back to court the judge gave me time served because he know it was nothing."

But the conviction adds to his lengthy criminal record and increases the chances of harsher treatment down the line. Public defenders call this the criminal justice vortex, and it's difficult to escape. Irwin Shaw, attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid's Manhattan office, said low-level offenses such as panhandling or being in a park after hours should be handled administratively, like a parking ticket would be.

"Why should that be brought into the criminal justice system?" said Shaw. "Number one, it takes up the time of an assistant district attorney, it takes up the time of a judge, it takes up the time of the defense."

It is an expensive process. Serious recidivists need more medical care than the average inmate. They're also more likely to be sick with withdrawal symptoms. But what costs the most is admitting them to Rikers Island, a jail system struggling to institute reforms.

Deputy Warden Joseph Vasaturo described the lengthy process while walking through the rundown corridors of the Robert N. Davoren Center, one of several jails on Rikers Island. On a recent fall day, 732 inmates were incarcerated there. "It's just amazing how some of these men just keep coming back," said Vasaturo, an amiable 27-year veteran of the Department of Correction. "It's almost like seeing a distant relative you might see at a funeral."

Once an inmate arrives, there are body searches and body scans even of a person's mouth, to ensure no weapons are being smuggled in. New arrivals get uniforms and shoes. There are background checks to determine the level of threat an inmate may pose. Once that's complete, the inmates enter a medical clinic where they wait inside a holding pen to get full physicals.

"They take blood, they take urine....they check to make sure the person doesn't have tuberculosis," Vasaturo explained. "They will also give the person the opportunity to be tested for HIV, but that's optional."

On top of full physicals, new inmates also see a dentist and psychiatrist if they meet certain criteria. The entire workup gets repeated each time they enter Rikers, even if they were only out of jail a day.

"There's a chance that the person might have picked something up," Vasaturo said. "We don't want that spreading into the rest of the population."

The group of 800 inmates the city analyzed cost $129 million over six years — three times as much as the more typical inmates.