Advocates say the suicide of Kalief Browder, the 22-year-old man who spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial, could have been prevented if cash bail requirements had not been imposed on his family.
The Pretrial Justice Institute launched a petition on Monday calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to end cash bail requirements in New York, which they say result in low-income New Yorkers like Browder disproportionately spending time behind bars before they have been convicted of a crime.
City Department of Correction figures show that the vast majority of inmates in New York City prisons have yet to be convicted of crimes.
"79% of the 9,753 DOC inmates are awaiting trial," a department spokesperson told Metro.
The latest available figures, from April this year, showed that over 1,500 people have been imprisoned at Rikers Island for over a year without being convicted.
It's a situation that could be avoided, according to Cherise Fanno Burdeen, Executive Director of the Pretrial Justice Institute.
"It would be replaced by two things that actually already exist. The alternative is that people would have their risk assessed and then depending on the risk that they pose they would either be released with simply a reminder to come back to court, or varying levels of supervision or monitoring in the community."
She said that system has been working in the District of Columbia and other parts of the country for several decades.
"The political will to make these changes has to come from the strength of the local community understanding that the current system produces really bad outcomes, and Kalief's suicide is one of those. We don't have to have it this way. We can do something different," she said.
At 16 years old, Browder was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. The judge set bail at $10,000 - an amount his family was not able to pay. He spent the next three years at Rikers, where he suffered abuse at the hands of prison guards and fellow inmates.
During that time, he also spent more than 400 days in solitary confinement - which medical experts agree takes a serious toll on an individual's mental and physical health.
Soon after, in the midst of the publicity around Browder's case, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to reform how Rikers - and the criminal justice system at large - works in New York City.
As part of that plan, the Mayor committed to ending the use of solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year olds, and for 18 to 21-year-olds by the end of this year. In addition, the new rules mean that stays in solitary confinement can last a maximum of 30 days, or 60 days in total per half year.
In April, to address the over 1500 people awaiting trial at Rikers, De Blasio set a goal of clearing 50 percent of those cases within six months.
"Kalief's story helped inspire our efforts on Rikers Island, where we are working to ensure no New Yorkers spend years in jail waiting for their day in court," said De Blasio in a statement. "There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal, and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need. On behalf of all New Yorkers, we send our condolences to the Browder family during this difficult time."
The Mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment on the Pretrial Justice Institute's petition to end cash bail in New York.
The Governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.