New York City inmate advocates and correction officials agree that the surest way to fix the city’s Rikers Island jail complex is to empty it, the New York Times reports. Mayor Bill De Blasio and the state's chief judge today are proposing a plan to gradually reduce the inmate population at Rikers by clearing the backlogs at state courts, a pocket of persistent dysfunction that has long frustrated improvement efforts. Such backlogs can keep people locked away for hundreds of days while they await trial. As of late March, 400 people had been locked up for more than two years without being convicted of a crime. A half-dozen Rikers inmates have been waiting on pending cases for more than six years. De Blasio said, “For the first time, our city will work with the courts, law enforcement, district attorneys and the defense bar to immediately tackle case delays head-on and significantly reduce the average daily population on Rikers Island.” The mayor has devoted political capital and tens of millions of dollars to curbing the violence in city jails.
Today’s proposal reflects an acknowledgment at City Hall that making lasting reforms at Rikers will require looking beyond the jail complex itself to make changes to a criminal justice system that top officials now say has become too dependent on incarceration. Under the proposal, officials hope to shrink the jail population 25 percent over the next 10 years. Given recent history, that would be a modest reduction. In the past two decades, the number of inmates on any given day has already decreased from a high of over 20,000 to about 10,000 today. The courts have defied efforts to address the problems. Over the last two decades, New York courts have taken longer and longer to resolve felony cases even as the number of arrests has generally declined, said Michael Jacobson, a former correction commissioner who now heads the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York.