NYC Rikers Shutdown Plan Called National ‘Model’ for Ending Mass Incarceration

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The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City has experience large spikes in coronavirus infections . Photo by David Oppenheimer via Flickr

Plans to create a system of smaller detention facilities around New York City to replace the controversial Rikers Island jail complex could make the city a model for ending the nation’s  “tragic reliance on mass incarceration,” says former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

The Hon. Jonathan F. Lippman

But Lippman, now chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, warned the city’s 10-year timeline for closing the jail did not remove the immediate need to end the “inhumane” conditions and practices at Rikers, one of the largest jail complexes in the country.

The judge. made his comments in the introduction to a “Progress Report” released this week on the plans to close down the facility.

The report noted that although the jail population had dropped by 1,500 in the past two years—a 15 percent decline—since Mayor Bill De Blasio accepted the commission’s recommendation to phase out the facility, there still remained “massive racial disparities.”

African-Americans and Latinos represent more than 90 percent of the inmates, most of whom are  awaiting trial and had not been convicted of any offenses.

“New York City continues to incarcerate too many people,” the report said. “For example, almost a third of the people admitted to jail are released within four days, suggesting that many should not have been jailed at all.”

Under the plan announced by the city, the Rikers population would gradually be shifted to smaller detention facilities around the city’s five boroughs, allowing inmates to be housed near their homes and local courts. But those plans have run into sharp opposition from community leaders who say their objections and suggestions have not been taken into account.

The study called on city authorities to pay closer attention to community concerns, while making clear the ultimate goal “is not simply to move jails around the city, but to reimagine the justice system for future generations.”

Critical to the goal was reforming some of the outdated bail and sentencing practices that sent too many people into pretrial detention in the first place, said the study authors.

To move reforms along, New York State legislators should begin enacting a set of reforms such as ending cash bail, new laws to speed up the trial and discovery practice, revising the parole system, and decriminalizing selected low-level offenses, said the study.

If the reforms were enacted in next year’s legislative session, they could reduce the number of people in New York City jails “by 3,000 or more” on any given day, and speed up the timeline for closing down Rikers.

But the report also said that in the interim,  meaningful reform at Rikers could not wait for the new, smaller facilities to be built.

Noting that incidents of violence continued to plague the facility, the report called on the city to follow the recommendations of a federal monitor and build a training facility for correction officers “as soon as possible.”

“Out of sight and too often out of mind, the human toll of the status quo at Rikers is unacceptable, for the people who work in the jails, the people who are detained there, and communities across our city,” the report said.

In his introduction to the report, Lippman said the city should not lose sight of the  ultimate goal of creating “a safer criminal justice system that lives up to our city’s values of decency, dignity, and equal treatment, and which can provide a model for ending our nation’s tragic reliance on mass incarceration.”

The full report can be accessed here

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