New York has been struggling with responding to one of the worst COVD-19 outbreaks in the world. As of Apr. 25, 2020, an estimated 271,600 people in New York State and 141,754 in New York City have been infected with COVID-19.1
In response to this health crisis, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued an emergency public health order called PAUSE (Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone) that requires all non-essential workers to stay home and bans all non-essential public gatherings through Apr. 29.2 In addition, individuals judged to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, including those over 70 years of age and those with compromised immune systems or other underlying chronic conditions are bound by Matilda’s law, which requires them to:
- remain indoors except for solitary exercise outdoors;
- pre-screen all visitors and aides;
- wear a mask when with others;
- stay six feet away from people; and
- be banned from visiting homes with multiple people or from using public transportation unless it is urgent.3
Punishment for Violating Home Quarantine Orders
Violating New York’s stay at home orders can have serious legal consequences. Non-complaint citizens could face fines up to $1,0004 and in some cases, be arrested. New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said that “a range of available methods” can be used and “ultimately summons and arrest is one of those options, but that’s the last resort.”5
Since early March, mandatory quarantine has been required for all New York City residents who:
- have tested positive for COVID-19;
- been in close contact with someone who has tested positive without symptoms; or
- have been to China, Italy, South Korea or Italy and have symptoms.
Those under mandatory quarantine may not leave their private property, must stay six feet away from others and may not use stairways or elevators in buildings.6
Breaking mandatory quarantines can result in fines between $200 to $2,000 per day and “Violations that pose an immediate danger to the public can also result in arrest and prosecution on a misdemeanor charge.”7 NYC Department of Health employees have the “legal authority make arrests, use physical force and conduct searches.”8
Vigilante Neighbors Turning In Neighbors
New York City residents are being asked to monitor each other and contact the police to turn in fellow citizens appearing to violate the “six feet away” social distancing orders.9 An anonymous complaint may be filed against businesses, friends, and neighbors using a form on the New York state website.10
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has encouraged citizens to take and text photos and locations of people suspected of violating PAUSE to a government hotline. According to the Mayor,
Now it is easier than ever. When you see a crowd, when you see a line that’s not distanced, when you see a supermarket that’s too crowded, anything, you can report it right away so we can get help there to fix the problem…Now it’s a simple as taking a photo. All you got to do is take the photo and put the location with it, and bang, send a photo like this, and we will make sure that enforcement comes right away.11
Some New Yorkers have heeded the call. A Brooklyn bar owner was reported and became the first person arrested for violating PAUSE on Mar. 30.12
Early Release of Jail Inmates
While the movements of ordinary citizens are being monitored and restricted, jail inmates, including those charged with violent crimes are being released in unprecedented numbers after attorneys argue they are being put at risk for being infected with COVD-19 if they remain in custody. Generally, jail inmates have been arrested and are awaiting trial, a plea agreement or sentencing, are serving a misdemeanor offense or who have been sentenced and are awaiting transfer to another facility.13
New York’s Board of Corrections instructed the city to,“(1) immediately remove from jail all people at higher risk from COVID-19 infection; and (2) rapidly decrease the jail population.” 14
On Rikers island 1,000 inmates have been released due to an infection rate of 1.5 percent among inmates with 75 cases of coronavirus reported among the prison population of 5,000 and 80 cases among staff members and the Department of Correction as of Mar. 25.15 16
Since the start of the outbreak through April 22, there have been 1,500 inmates released from New York City jails.17 Governor Cuomo ordered the release of 1,100 parole violators, approximately 300 of which were facing violent felony charges.18 19
This mass release of inmates and prisoners has met with resistance by some New York state officials. Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. of Suffolk County fought to prevent 100 Suffolk County inmates confined to prison hospitals with substance abuse and mental illness from being put on the streets, arguing that they could be more likely to contract the virus on the streets.20
Violent Offenders Released From Prison Over Objections of Prosecuters
In order to determine which inmates would be eligible for early release, defense attorneys and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice compiled a list of inmates with underlying health conditions. The list was presented to each prosecutor’s office for prosecutors to sign off on or object to the release. Prosecutors have complained that their objections are not being heard and inmates serving time for violent crimes, such as domestic violence and sex offenses, have been released.21
However, the city’s district attorneys and the Special Narcotics prosecutor sent a joint letter to the Mayor de Blasio and the Department of Correction’s Commissioner, Cynthia Brann, agreeing that, while the inmate population should be decreased due to the threat of COVD-19, there are concerns about releasing violent offenders.
At the same time, we want to make clear that the categories of those proposed for release have, in some instances, included individuals who pose a high risk to public safety. In such instances, we have communicated our concerns, but these concerns have not always been heeded.22
According to ABC News, inmates charged with violent crimes awaiting trial are being released from prisons and jails over prosecutor’s objections by filing a writ of habeas corpus, which grants a judge the right to decide whether imprisonment is lawful or immediate release is warranted.23 24 This process has resulted in the release of violent offenders, including an inmate who was charged with brutally stabbing his girlfriend to death before witnesses, a murder that was caught on a surveillance tape.25
Victims and families of victims are not being warned when an inmate is released and run the risk of meeting the offender on the streets.26 Objecting to the release of violent offenders, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark issued a statement relaying that,
My duty is to protect the public, and the victims and survivors who remain vulnerable knowing that many of the individuals who were incarcerated are returning to the community.27
The New York Police Department which as protested that that they were not consulted on the majority of releases, has warned that, “the re-offenders are “targeting the most vulnerable victims” once they’re out.”28
Some Released Inmates Committed More Crimes
The coordinated effort between the Department of Corrections, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and the New York Police Department to follow up and monitor the released inmates has not been uniformly effective.29
According to police sources and police records, at least 50 (six percent) of the released prison inmates have already been detained and released again for committing crimes as soon as they were back on the streets, which has created a revolving door of arrests and releases.30
The New York Post reported that on Rikers island, one inmate, who was jailed for allegedly setting his girlfriend’s door on fire and choking her mother, was granted early release only to return to his girlfriend’s apartment and allegedly threaten to kill her whole family.31 Another Rikers Island inmate accused of rape was arrested for the attempted rape of a 58 year old woman he grabbed on the street just days after his early release to reduce spread of COVID-19 in prisons.32
One inmate has been rearrested five times for burglary and drug charges since his early release, while another inmate with multiple pending burglary and grand larceny charges who was released early for medical reasons, broke into a store stealing approximately $9,000 from a safe.33
In addition to the risk of inmates committing crimes when they are released early, allowing inmates with health conditions who have been living in close quarters back on the streets could cause the virus to spread to greater numbers of people. This risk would likely increase when an inmate is released only to be arrested and released again.
Is PAUSE Making New York Safer for All?
The New York City Police Department has been working with a reduced staff as officers have been calling in sick during this outbreak. In March, CBS News reported that as many as 11 percent of the department called in sick on one day.34
The department will be further taxed with inmates on the streets, the public contacting the police whenever it appears that social distancing orders are not being followed, and citizens being arrested for non-essential gatherings.
As New York follows PAUSE orders, will the city’s jails be filled with citizens suspected of getting together to play a game of basketball or attend a family gathering while violent criminals are released on the streets?
Threatening citizens with arrest and detaining them for getting together while releasing inmates early, challenges the notion that New York City’s policies in response to COVID-19 are truly making the city uniformly safer for all.
1 Danner C, Stieb M, Hart B. Coronavirus in New York: Latest Updates. New York Magazine Apr. 25, 2020.
2 Information on Coronavirus. New York State.
3 Linton C. New York orders “non-essential” workers to stay home. Here’s what that means. CBS News Mar. 20, 2020.
4 NYS on PAUSE Extended. New York State Apr. 23, 2020.
5 Picket K. De Blasio’s stay-at-home guidance includes fines and penalties for noncompliance. Washington Examiner Mar. 21, 2020.
6 Spezzamonte I. Mandatory quarantine? Precautionary? A look at N.Y.’s coronavirus measures. Silve Mar. 7, 2020.
7 Mora E. Penalties for Ignoring Coronavirus Restrictions in U.S. Hotspots Include Jail Time, Fines. Breitbart Mar. 23, 2020.
9 Soave R. New York City Wants You To Call the Cops on People Who Fail Social Distancing. Reason Apr. 4, 2020.
10 New York State COVID-19 ‘New York on PAUSE’ Enforcement Task Force Violation Complaint Form. New York State.
11 Richardson V. Bill de Blasio urges New Yorkers to snitch on neighbors who violate social distancing. The Washington Times Apr. 18, 2020.
12 Ketersky A, Thorbecke C. Brooklyn bar operator the 1st person arrested for violating COVID-19 executive order. ABC News Mar. 30, 2010.
13 Clem Information Strategies.
14 New York City Board Of Correction Calls For City To Begin Releasing People From Jail As Part Of Public Health Response To Covid-19. The New York City Board of Correction Press Release Mar. 17, 2020.
15 Carrega C. Victim’s family says they weren’t told of violent offender’s release amid COVID-19. ABC News Apr. 7, 2020.
16 Edwards J. Rikers Island Doctor Slams DAs, Says Sick Inmates Will Need Hospitals, Ventilators. News 4 New York Mar. 23, 2020.
17 Davis J. New York Sheriff Says Releasing Inmates Will Cause ‘Some Issues in Our Streets’. The Western Journal Apr. 22, 2020.
18 Givas N. Over 16K US inmates have been released as coronavirus crisis has progressed. Fox News Apr. 17, 2020.
19 McCarthy C, Weissmann R, Fitz-Gibbons J. Dozens of NYC inmates back in jail after coronavirus release. New York Post Apr. 19, 2020.
20 See Footnote 16.
21 Carrega C, Katersky A. Inmates charged with violent crimes poised for release due to COVD-19. ABC News Mar. 31, 2020.
23 See Footnote 20.
24 State Habeas Corpus; Florida, New York and Michigan. Jlm.law.columbia.edu.
25 Marsh J, Rosenberg R. NYC Judge frees alleged murderer out of concern he’ll catch coronavirus. New York Post Mar. 27, 2020.
26 See Footnote 14.
28 See Footnote 18.
29 See Footnote 16.
30 See Footnote 18.
32 Moore T, Barone V. Brooklyn man arrested on attempted rape days after being released from Rikers Island. New York Post Apr. 25, 2020.
33 See Footnote 18.
34 NYPD absences spike as police call in sick amid coronavirus pandemic. CBS News Mar. 27, 2020.