Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a disaster emergency and signed an executive order expanding the use of virtual court appearances at New York City's Rikers Island jail on Tuesday, saying it would expedite hearings for inmates and lessen some of the burden on corrections officers at a facility in crisis.
The order allows a court to have virtual appearances from any party or witness instead of requiring them to be in person for a range of different kinds of hearings, even allowing pleas and sentences to be virtual with defendant consent.
In announcing the order, Hochul said allowing more use of virtual appearances instead of requiring inmates to be physically transferred would make the legal process go faster for them. She said corrections officers would be able to focus more on supervision and safety without having to spend as much time on transporting detainees.
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“Improving safety and justice at Rikers is about protecting human rights and human dignity," Hochul said in a statement. “No incarcerated person, no corrections officer, and no family member should have to endure the reality of Rikers as it exists today, and we must do everything in our power to prevent New Yorkers from languishing in Rikers awaiting their day in court."
An email seeking comment was sent to the City Hall.
Calls for action have taken on extreme urgency at a jail that a court-appointed monitor and other voices have been loud in saying is in a dangerous state.
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that Hochul “is right to recognize that Rikers Island is a humanitarian disaster. We applaud the governor for expanding access to remote hearings to limit the time New Yorkers spend on Rikers awaiting trial."
But she also said officials in the city and the legal system had to do more to get people out of the jail.