Cuomo vetoes bill to change city jails’ prosecutor

Khorri Atkinson | 1/8/2015, 6:09 p.m.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation last week that would have allowed the Queens district attorney’s office to have jurisdiction and ...
Rikers Island

Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation last week that would have allowed the Queens district attorney’s office to have jurisdiction and prosecute crimes that occur on Rikers Island and in other New York City jails.

In his veto message, Cuomo said the bill would take an “unprecedented and unconstitutional step” of transferring criminal prosecutions that occurs in the jurisdiction of an elected district attorney. Citing the state’s constitution, he pointed out that “each county elect a district attorney to faithfully prosecute crimes that take place in that county. Rikers Island is located in Bronx County, and the citizens of Bronx County have elected a district attorney to prosecute crimes that occur there.”

The bill was overwhelmingly passed in the state Assembly and Senate. It was championed by Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, a union that represents guards at the city’s correctional facilitates. Seabrook argued that the measure would allow corrections officers to be “treated a little bit differently” if jurisdiction is handed over to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. He said the Bronx district attorney’s office does not give correction officers the benefit of the doubt” in alleged brutality cases.

The bill would have also deprived the special narcotics prosecutor and the U.S. attorney general of jurisdiction and the ability prosecute crimes committed on Rikers Island. Cuomo said, “There is no reason or legal basis for this proposed change.”

Opposition to the measure came from many civil rights groups and jail reform advocates. Earlier this year, District Attorneys Brown and Johnson wrote a letter to Cuomo, urging him to veto the bill. They questioned the constitutionality of it.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which also opposed the measure, lauded Cuomo’s move. Had it been approved, the group said it would “protect guards from prosecution for acts of brutality against inmates.”

“We’re relieved that Gov. Cuomo has put the health and safety of people, kids and even prison guards at Rikers Island over the political gamesmanship of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association,” said Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “We need more accountability at Rikers, not less, and a wholesale reform of the culture of corruption and abuse that has gone on for too long.”

Seabrook and the bill’s sponsor, Joseph Lentol, chair of the Assembly’s Codes committee, didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time.

Cuomo’s move comes on the heels of a lawsuit that U.S. Attorney Preet Bahara slapped the city with Dec.18. The suit calls for jail reform measures to be implemented more swiftly.

In August, Bahara sent a scathing report to Mayor Bill de Blasio, over what he called a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teen inmates. The report concluded that correction officers violently and routinely abused inmates. It said guards should be held accountable for using excessive and unnecessary force. The report prompted the city to end solitary confinement for teen inmates and to step up its security measures.