As the coronavirus quickly spread through the city’s jail population starting in March, 10 staffers and three inmates died of COVID-19 and a total of 1,650 combined were sickened, according to the city’s Department of Correction.

The pandemic’s overwhelming impact on those living in confinement, and the people who work among them, led the state and city to reduce the number of detainees at Rikers and other local jails. Today, New York City’s jail population is less than 4,000 people. That’s a 28 percent drop since the middle of March, when almost 5,500 people were still in jail. 

But that drop isn’t all due to people being released to avoid spreading the coronavirus. The bail law that changed in January resulted in fewer people being held in jail. Then, when the city went into lockdown mode in March, major crimes dropped by almost 29 percent and fewer people were arrested, reversing what had been an uptick in crime.

Two months into the early release program, there’s a debate about exactly how many people got out of jail early because of concerns about the pandemic and whether these early releases were safe.

By the Numbers

The NYPD says about 1,400 people were released between March 25th and May 3rd due to concerns about the health conditions in the jails, and that it opposed the release of almost 95 percent of these individuals. 

It’s hard to independently confirm that number because it includes three groups: people the city released from jail who were serving sentences of a year or less; parolees who were sent back to jail on technical violations; and those who were held on bail and released by judges with the input of district attorneys. Gothamist/WNYC asked the five district attorneys how many they consented to release and only got information from Manhattan and Brooklyn. In addition, lawyers could have petitioned the court to release a client whose release was denied.

Using the NYPD’s data, the department says almost 110 out of the 1,400 released were rearrested – or about 8 percent. A police official who didn’t want to be identified said that’s high. But there’s really no comparison point. There’s never been a situation similar to this pandemic.

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said, “New Yorkers by and large are responding to the public health concerns with social distancing and remaining safely inside, as reflected by the sharp drop in overall crime and arrest rates. These include the vast majority of people released from custody over COVID-19 concerns.”

If the trends continue and crime stays low, the agency said there could be lessons for the justice system.

Rearrests involving Violence

The police say the nearly 110 people who allegedly reoffended were charged with 190 arrests, because some are accused of multiple new crimes. None was accused of murder. But there were several charged with major crimes.

Notably, a man was arrested last month for allegedly trying to rape a woman he didn’t know in a Brooklyn parking lot. He had previously been accused of rape and was in jail for violating parole, but had been released when the victim declined to cooperate. Another man made headlines for robbing three banks after his release.

The state’s Department of Corrections said parolees in jail on technical violations were only eligible for release if their violation did not involve a weapon or a violent act. Their release also couldn’t present a public safety risk.

On Sunday a 36 year-old man was arrested for allegedly robbing someone at an ATM in Manhattan at knife point with another defendant. He had pleaded guilty in February to two separate offenses, a felony drug charge and robbing a Nordstrom’s. The Manhattan DA’s office consented to his early release because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Those released in this manner required special consideration if there had been a violent felony arrest. District Attorneys intervened to stop some releases. They were supposed to exclude cases with sex offense or domestic violence from being released.  But groups representing victims of domestic violence worried there weren’t enough safeguards. 

Dorchen Leidholdt, who directs the legal center at Sanctuary for Families, said misdemeanor crimes can fit patterns of domestic abuse. She also worried about those let out for technical violations of parole.

“In my experience, some conduct that also constitutes a technical violation in fact is a repeated instance of domestic violence,” she explained. “Stalking, threats to a victim, violating an order of protection.”

She said there should be greater review of prior charges and history before letting anyone out, and notification to victims – which is not always guaranteed.

Commercial Burglaries 

Police said the largest category of arrests among those who had been released early, about 25 percent, were for breaking into commercial establishments. These include restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations and small shops. Suspects took money from cash registers, goods and liquor.

These arrests are notable because overall crime has fallen dramatically during the pandemic, but not commercial burglaries. Those went up 128 percent from late March through early May, compared to the same period last year, according to the NYPD. In total, there were almost 1,000 burglaries of commercial establishments during the last month and a half. This type of crime went up across the country during the pandemic. Throughout the city, stores have boarded up their windows

But only 45 burglaries since March were committed by people granted early release, according to the NYPD. The police describe these suspects as recidivists, people they see as repeat offenders. Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, which represents business owners, said her group planned to meet with the police commissioner. She acknowledged the reasons for the rise in burglaries are unclear.

“Whether it’s released prisoners, whether it’s the bail reform laws, whether it’s the unemployment and the fact that people are desperate in certain situations,” she explained, “we’re not sure what the reason is, but we certainly think that the city cannot afford an increase in crime.”

Monitoring Those With Early Release

There are different systems for monitoring those who were released from jail because of the pandemic. 

Parolees still have parole officers and must comply with the individual requirements of their release. The state said four of the 300 released were rearrested. 

Offenders who were serving sentences of a year or less are still under the city’s custody until the end of their sentence. The 312 who were released are required to have daily phone calls with case workers or they could be sent back to jail. The Criminal Justice Agency said 14 were rearrested, or 4.5 percent of the total.

Kathy Pierson, clinical director of the Criminal Justice Agency’s supervised release program in Queens, said many clients were given free cell phones upon their release with the names of caseworkers to call right away. She said the vast majority complied and even though they can’t meet in person, she can accomplish a lot with her clients by phone.

“Many of our clients don’t have access to computers and WiFi, so we’ll fill out with them on the phone information to help them get their benefits and make appointments for ID cards and get in touch with telehealth services,” she explained. 

She said she’s also helped get people into homeless shelters, and even programs for substance abuse. She attributes this regular contact to the low number of clients who were rearrested.

Normally, Pierson and her counterparts across the city would be supervising defendants awaiting trial, to make sure they come back to court while also offering social services. But that’s no longer happening with people who have been arrested since March because all trial dates were postponed due the pandemic. 

Nonetheless, Lori Zeno, executive director of Queens Defenders, said she does not think the early releases are cause for alarm. She said her office brings food to clients who were released from jail and are struggling, and tries to connect them with resources.

“They’re not being reckless,” she said, of the judges and different agencies involved in releasing inmates. “You’ve got people in there on murder charges, you’ve got people in there on rape cases, you’ve got people in there on armed robberies, guns, you know they’re not getting out. They’re not.”

However, she conceded people accused of violent crimes may have been released early.

According to the latest city data, of 3,898 people still in jail as of May 7th, 2,572 were held pre-trial on violent felony charges including murder, robbery, assault, and sex offenses. Most of the rest were either held on bail and face lesser charges, were still serving sentences, or had violated their parole conditions.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering immigration, courts, and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.