New York, NYThe Progressive Caucus is deeply distrubed by the deaths of Jose Rivera and Layleen Polanco, whose deaths occurred within a few days of one another while they were both separately in the custody of the Department of Correction (DOC). In addition to a need for investigation by the DOC, the deaths highlight the need for parole and criminal justice reforms in Albany before the end of this legislative session.

In the case of Jose Rivera, six weeks ago, Mr. Rivera was found unconscious and brought to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center to receive treatment. On May 7, 2019, he was transferred to Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers due to missed parole hearings in regards to a minor drug offense from 2010. Mr. Rivera’s ailing health made it difficult for him to attend these hearings.

New Yorkers are often rearrested on “technical violations” of parole, like missing a curfew, missing hearings due to illness, as in the case of Mr. Rivera —not necessarily for committing another crime. While New York City’s prison population has decreased by 20% since 2014, there has been a 15% increase in incarceration rates for parole violators. Thus, the Progressive Caucus is calling on Albany to pass Less Is More: Community Supervision Revocation Reform Act (S1343B) which would expedite parole hearings and prevent parole absconders from being held in jail for more than a week, as well as additional parole reform measures such as S497A, which would make more prisoners eligible for release on parole regardless of age.

Jose Rivera’s death comes days after the death of Layleen Polanco, a young trans woman who was detained at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers and also passed away in Department of Correction custody, specifically while in solitary confinement, despite being housed in a new transgender housing unit at RMSC. Solitary confinement is inhumane and not a replacement for addressing violence in jails, where people are often held pre-trial and awaiting bail or court dates. Thus, the Caucus urges Albany to pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act (S1623/A2500) which would restrict the use of segregated confinement and create alternative therapeutic and rehabilitative confinement options.

Layleen would not have even been at Rikers had it not been for a $500 bail fee for prostitution and lowe-level drug possession stemming from a 2017 arrest. Recently, a group of New York lawmakers introduced the first state bill in the country that would decriminalize sex work and people involved in the sex trade. Legal attempts to crack down on ‘prostitution’ have failed to protect people engaged in sex trade and further disenfranchises economically marginalized people who are using paid sex to earn enough money to feed themselves and their families. The criminal justice system should not be used to prosecute people engaging in sex for trade when people engage in the trade because they have few or no other economic options.

This tragedy reinforces that Rikers must close immediately, and that the City and State should hasten and deepen its efforts to decarcerate.  These criminal justice reforms are vital to reducing our jail population, in closing Rikers, and preventing these tragic deaths like Layleen and Jose’s from happening in the future.

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