We’ve been frequently told, as jails across the country release pretty much everyone they can, that COVID-19 is a scourge that’s uniquely problematic in situations like jails, where it can spread like wildfire. This is accurate.
We haven’t been frequently told that jails are often full of people who both deserve and need to be in jails. This bit is important since it’s also accurate.
We’re beginning to find out just how accurate.
In New York City alone, the New York Police Department estimates, roughly one out of every 10 inmates released from Rikers Island jail — the city’s main jail complex — has been rearrested by the city’s police force.
“We’re continuing to see people get arrested over and over and let right back out. And it really defies common sense,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea told New York’s WNBC-TV.
Michael LiPetri, head of Crime Control Strategies for the NYPD, said that at least 250 of the roughly 2,500 defendants who were freed from Rikers Island as part of the massive COVID-related jail release have been rearrested by the NYPD.
Nothing is more illustrative of the problem than the case of 27-year-old Jonathan Martinez.
On June 6, Martinez was caught on video stealing socks from drugstore Prime Essentials and putting them on. He also stole medicine, according to WNBC’s report, after throwing a rock through the store’s window.
Co-owner Josh Rahmani said he felt sad when he first saw the video.
“I felt really bad that he got arrested for taking socks, food and medicine,” Rahmani said. “We would have just given it to him if had asked.”
He found out from the station that Martinez had been rearrested at least three times before this and was less thrilled.
“This is shocking and disturbing,” co-owner Ebi Khalili said. “It’s a bad decision by our leaders.”
The NYPD said it wasn’t against letting older prisoners out but was opposed to letting offenders like Martinez go.
“Martinez was released from Rikers on March 16 under plans to reduce the jail population for health reasons during the pandemic, according to the Manhattan DA’s office. At the time, he was facing a range of charges, from petit larceny to forcible touching, stemming from at least six separate incidents since November 2019,” WNBC reported.
“Martinez was being held for allegedly robbing the Sephora on East 86th Street (with conflicting reports about whether or not he brandished a gun). He also had a violent past. Martinez had already served a 364-day sentence after pleading guilty in 2014 to strangulation involving his girlfriend, according to law enforcement officials.”
Since he’s been let out, Martinez has been on a bit of a spree.
Just one week after he was released, he allegedly pulled a boxcutter while robbing a cellphone from someone. He was released on his own recognizance. In April, he was arrested from stealing food and drink from a Gourmet Garage market. Then on June 3, he was accused of throwing a rock through a clothing boutique.
In all of these cases, he was released. While there’s the tendency to view cases like Martinez as if he’s Jean Valjean, the hero of “Les Misérables” didn’t allegedly pull a boxcutter when he was stealing his bread.
And the damage was pretty extensive — and expensive, according to Elise Ballegeer, co-owner of the boutique Martinez allegedly threw a rock into.
“It was heartbreaking. We were sweeping up glass and crying,” she said.
While Martinez did his share of heavy lifting in terms of crimes allegedly committed, it’s worth noting that the 250 inmates who were released by the city committed 450 alleged crimes.
That’s almost two crimes per former inmate — and that only counts those the NYPD has managed to arrest. It beggars belief that the real number isn’t significantly higher.
This isn’t an uncommon theme across the country, either. The Los Angeles Times via The Associated Press: “2 men freed from jail by California coronavirus order rearrested.” The Honolulu Star-Advertiser: “Honolulu police have rearrested dozens of inmates released due to coronavirus, lawmakers told.”
In Gotham, however, the impact of COVID-19 releases is also combined with bail reforms in New York state that went into effect on Jan. 1. Thanks to those, individuals accused of misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies won’t have to post bail at all.
In February, NYPD officials said, overall crime in New York City rose 22.5 percent, which they attributed to the new bail laws, according to The Wall Street Journal. Now, they have the individuals released from jail because of the novel coronavirus.
WCBS-TV reported that in May, violent crime increased even while the city was on lockdown. Murders were up 79 percent. Shootings were up 64 percent, burglaries 34 percent. Overall crime was down, but one suspects that has something to do with the fact that the streets were empty
“If this was a business, the business would go bankrupt,” NYPD Commissioner Shea said.
“You need to insert some common sense into how the criminal justice system works.”
Best of luck with that. Again, we tend to forget the fact that people in jail aren’t just there for punitive reasons, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s because of the fact that they’re a risk to reoffend.
Lo and behold, many are accused of doing just that.
Jonathan Martinez has been arrested four times in three months since he’s been released. He’s hardly the only one, either.
I understand the impulse to release low-level or low-risk criminals from jail or prison because of COVID-19. The common line — a little maudlin and overwrought, but with a grain of truth — is that a small crime shouldn’t be a death sentence.
That said, when you look at the Jonathan Martinezes of the world, you have to draw the line somewhere. New York clearly didn’t know where to draw it.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.