On July 8, 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio proudly announced $17.8 million in funding to broadly expand a citywide Supervised Release program. The initiative was designed to extend judges’ options beyond setting cash bail and to release defendants based on their promise to participate in community-based programming, live a law-abiding life and come to court as a judge directed.
As police commissioner I fully supported that project at the time, and I stated, “This program moves the city towards a more fair and equitable criminal-justice system by decreasing unnecessary detention for those individuals awaiting trial, while more accurately assessing public-safety risk and the supervision necessary to prevent people from reentering the criminal-justice system.”
I believed that then, and I believe that now. That is why I am so disheartened by the state of the city’s Supervised Release program.
I served on the executive committee of the Mayor’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System, whose work led to the program’s creation. When Judge George A. Grasso, co-chair of the task force working group that developed this recommendation, presented it to the executive committee, he made it very clear that the group had paid careful attention to public safety. Specifically, the Action Report released on Dec. 2, 2014, stated that a “scientifically validated risk assessment tool” would be created and implemented to identify and divert “people who do not pose a high risk of reoffending or flight if enrolled in supervised release.”
Initially, Supervised Release was highly successful in both reducing pre-trial incarceration and maintaining public safety — for a period of several years, in fact. Then the New York state Legislature stepped in and passed a series of laws that, in my opinion, undermined the program.
Most significantly, the law eliminated judges’ authority in a large percentage of cases to set bail when defendants fail to comply with court mandates imposed as part of the supervised-release contract. This is because those cases involve charges for crimes the Legislature deemed “unqualified” for bail. In those cases, when defendants fail to cooperate with program obligations or come to court — or even get rearrested — the court is essentially powerless to act. The court’s leverage to obtain compliance from such defendants is basically nonexistent.
So it is not surprising that this once-laudable program is now routinely abused, and defendants who have been placed on supervised release are often seen to reoffend, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Take the case of Rameek Smith, who died last month after two officers spotted him carrying a gun in one of The Bronx’s most dangerous precincts. Smith fled after the officers gave chase, then turned and fired on them. He hit Officer Dennis Vargas, who eventually recovered from his injury. But Vargas’ partner returned fire, killing Smith. Smith had pleaded guilty to previous gun charges but was on the streets thanks to a mental-treatment program meant as an alternative to incarceration — with which he wasn’t fully complying.
Or this horror story, also last month: Just weeks before Andrew Abdullah allegedly murdered Daniel Enriquez on the Q train, a judge gave him supervised release after he was arrested for stealing a car. Enriquez was heading to Sunday brunch; the murder was completely unprovoked.
The creation of a court program that does not provide judges with necessary authority to ensure compliance undermines respect for the court and as such the rule of law. These are the very conditions that lay the foundation for significant increases in crime and violence.
The Legislature has also rejected the type of risk-assessment tools the task force recommended in 2014 and has mandated that supervised release be given priority consideration in cases involving violent felonies. To make matters worse, it has done this without providing the necessary additional resources to the service providers responsible for monitoring defendants accused of violent felonies in the community.
It did not have to be this way. Public safety and the minimization of pre-trial incarceration are not mutually exclusive goals. Supervised Release was originally constructed and implemented in that vein.
If the Legislature is truly concerned with the substantial increases in crime and violence, it needs to act immediately to restore appropriate authority to judges to implement Supervised Release as it was intended and presented to the mayor’s executive committee in 2014. New York’s safety depends on it.
Former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is the author of “The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America.”