Crime and Courts

Chief investigative reporter Jonathan Dienst on crime, corruption and terrorism.
Bail Reform

NYPD Brass: We're Arresting Too Many Prisoners on Early COVID Release

Jonathan Martinez is one of at least 250 people released from Rikers during the coronavirus pandemic who has since been re-arrested, in some cases multiple times

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Hundreds of prisoners released early from Rikers due to COVID concerns are being enabled to re-offend again and again without consequences, law enforcement leaders say.

“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 said in an interview with NBC New York.

Of approximately 2,500 defendants sprung from Rikers early because of COVID safety planning, at least 250 have been arrested again since, according to Michael LiPetri, chief of Crime Control Strategies for the NYPD.

Chief LiPetri tells NBC New York the NYPD did not object to releasing older defendants, nor those with underlying medical conditions. But he says the consequences of the larger-scale release of prisoners are now showing up in the arrest data, with those 250 re-offenders being arrested 450 times so far during the pandemic.

Josh Rahmani, co-owner of the drug store Prime Essentials, says he felt sad when he first saw surveillance tape of a man stealing socks and putting them on inside his store on Lower Broadway on June 6.

“I felt really bad that he got arrested for taking socks, food and medicine,” Rahmani told NBC New York. “We would have just given it to him if had asked.” 

Rahmani and his business partner Ebi Khalili said they were appalled to learn from the News 4 I-Team that the man, identified by the NYPD as 27-year-old Jonathan Martinez, had already been rearrested three others times before throwing a rock through his store window that Saturday.   

“This is shocking and disturbing,” Khalili said. “It’s a bad decision by our leaders.”

After protestors have been demanding change and police reform, Gov. Cuomo signed some legislation into law that bans choke holds and makes past police disciplinary records public. Andrew Siff reports.

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.

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.   

Danny Frost, spokesman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, says while his office did sign off on some COVID-related early releases, Martinez’s was not one of them.

“At the time, the court released him for COVID,” Frost said.       

Seven days after his early release, Martinez was arrested for allegedly pulling a boxcutter while stealing a cellphone from a passenger in a parked car. NBC New York has obtained video of this incident. Martinez was released on his own recognizance.

Later in April, he was arrested and released again, after being accused of stealing food and beverages from a Gourmet Garage. On June 3, police say he threw a rock through the window of Lahn, a clothing and jewelry boutique on Greenwich Avenue where owner Elise Ballegeer says she and her husband had struggled to reopen.

Images of the scene obtained by NBC New York show sharply dressed mannequins covered in shattered glass. Ballegeer says repairing the damage was expensive, and more than her windows were broken. 

“It was heartbreaking. We were sweeping up glass and crying.”  

Once again Martinez was arrested and released, but the window displays at Lahn remain boarded up, as Ballegeer tries to remain positive with hopes of reopening with curbside pickup.

According to the Manhattan DA’s office, prosecutors asked the court to keep Martinez in jail after Martinez’s most recent arrest, for the alleged rock-throwing burglary at Prime Essentials on June 6, but spokesman Danny Frost says the court denied that request. 

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the NY State Court System, said he could not immediately explain the reasons behind all of the decisions to release Martinez, but some of his recent arrests were for charges that under bail reform would not require him to post bail.

Prime Essentials owner Rahmani asked if they let someone like Martinez out, “who is in jail?” 

The Legal Aid Society responded to NBC NewYork’s inquiries after the story ran, disputing the NYPD’s claim that Martinez was released on March 16 because of COVID-19. An attorney assigned to represent Martinez says his client was released because prosecutors were unprepared to move forward with his case and the court was obligated to let him go.

Redmond Haskins, spokesman for the Legal Aid Society says COVID-related early releases from Rikers did not begin until later in March.

NYPD officials dispute this, however, telling NBC New York that Martinez’s name is included on the City’s official list of COVID-related releases, and that 344 people on that list were released the same week as Martinez.  

“The police department has worked with other City agencies and he is on the list of early releases due to COVID-19, along with hundreds of other individuals released that week,” said Chief LiPetri.

The Legal Aid Society says Martinez was never the subject of any motions or writs they filed for COVID-related release. But NYPD officials stand by their claim that if not for the pandemic, Martinez would not have been freed. 

Chief LiPetri says his team has carefully reviewed the data from early releases and sees a pattern of people, like Martinez who were being held on bail, or a warrant, and then suddenly everything disappears.

Commissioner Shea says with bail changes and health concerns enabling repeat offenders, it’s no surprise that crime is rising.   

“If this was a business, the business would go bankrupt,” Shea told NBC New York. “You need to insert some common sense into how the criminal justice system works.”

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify the details of Martinez's alleged robbery of the Sephora store that led to his being held at Rikers.

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