A bill proposing to change the jurisdiction of crimes committed on Rikers Island passed with seeming ease earlier this year, but has since become more controversial.
The jail complex on Rikers Island is part of Bronx County and crimes committed there are prosecuted by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson. The new bill, which overwhelmingly passed the Assembly and state Senate, would change that and grant jurisdiction to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown if it is approved by Gov. Cuomo. The problem is that neither DA seems to welcome the change.
“We write to express, in the strongest possible terms, our opposition to the above-referenced legislation which would take the unprecedented step of removing an entire category of criminal prosecutions occurring in the county of one independently elected District Attorney and mandating that said prosecutions be held in another county,” the DAs said in a joint letter to Cuomo.
They call the bill “potentially unconstitutional” and “an unfunded mandate which serves no useful purpose.”
According to a source in the state Senate, the bill was introduced quietly at the end of the spring legislative session. Because the only way to transport prisoners from Rikers to the Bronx for prosecution is through Queens, it was presented as a cheaper and more efficient solution that would ultimately save the state transportation costs.
“I have long felt that given that the sole geographic access to Rikers Island is through Queens, it makes absolute sense for the borough to have jurisdiction,” said Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who voted in favor.
But since Brown has come out against it, Avella admits, “Notwithstanding that the bill has good intentions, we must ensure that the Queens District Attorney’s office and the police are given adequate resources to handle the additional caseload.”
The joint letter from the DAs argues that the actual savings on transportation would be negligible because the city is already transporting prisoners to all five boroughs for trials daily.
In fact, they go on to argue that the proposed change in jurisdiciton would actually cost Queens County a great deal of money as the prosecutor’s office and court system would have to absorb the new glut of cases “with no additional space, funding or personnel.”
Johnson’s office in Bronx has dedicated assistants specifically trained to handle the cases generated by Rikers. This year the county also received a city grant of $600,000 to defray the cost of prosecuting those cases.
Queens has none of those resources and could stand to inherit the roughly 1,000 felony and misdemeanor cases arising on Rikers Island each year.
Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) was one of only four senators to vote against the measure. The rationale of saving transportation costs was never clear to him.
I am opposed to the bill because no one has articulated a reason or justification for it,” Sanders said. “The public should be informed of the reason why this change is necessary or beneficial.”
Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Bronx, Westchester) also voted against the bill. All other Queens and Bronx senators either voted for the measure or were excused.
According to the DAs the bill may violate Article XIII, Section 13 of the state Constitution, which allows each county to elect a district attorney to prosecute the crimes of that county. The measure would strip Johnson of the ability to prosecute crimes that he was elected by Bronx residents to tackle.
The bill has not yet been brought to the governor’s desk for approval.