The upsurge of crime in New York City has forced many of the candidates in the city’s mayoral race to balance calls for justice and police reform with assurances they will keep New Yorkers safe.
One of the key inflection points is the fate of the sprawling Rikers Island jail, which the current administration has slated for eventual closure in response to a years-long campaign by activists and justice professionals.
The forum took place the same week that a 342-page report was released saying that the rate of use of force in New York City jails was higher in 2020 than any year since at least 2015, with an average of 11.3 incidents of force per 100 inmates. Just over half of the incidents had either procedural errors or involved avoidable or problematic force, according to the report.
This week, the frontrunner in the mayoral race, Andrew Yang, promised he would continue the existing plans to close Rikers Island, which he called a “stain on the city”–but he carefully avoided committing to a timeline. Other candidates appear to be following suit, but the change in the electoral climate makes it likely that the fate of the controversial jail will be overshadowed by the crime rise.
One of the candidates most likely to benefit from concerns about crime is Eric Adams, a former New York cop and Brooklyn borough president.
I don’t believe [if] the same level of crime you’re seeing in black and brown and immigrant communities — if that crime level was all over the city, I don’t believe you would see the silence we see,” Adams said at a campaign appearance last month.
“When I go to community meetings….I hear what they’re saying on the ground. I am not shaping my campaign based on Twitter. I’m shaping my campaign based on speaking with real New Yorkers.”
Yang was speaking at a virtual forum put together by a group of formerly incarcerated New Yorkers, advocates, and other experts to discuss what the next mayor of New York City must do to fully close Rikers Island.
During the forum, Darren Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda and a formerly incarcerated activist, asked Yang if he’d commit to closing Rikers by or before Aug. 31, 2027 and reducing the total citywide jail capacity to 3,300 or less by that time.
Under the plan worked out by the de Blasio administration, Rikers is to be replaced by four borough-based jails in all the boroughs except Staten Island.
“I support closing Rikers Island as soon as we can,” Yang said. “It’s a stain on the city. It’s inhumane. It’s incredibly costly. It’s inefficient. It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Dianne Morales, a second candidate who appeared at the forum, made a clear commitment to closing Rosie’s, the only women’s jail in New York City, before 2027.
A combination of a tireless grassroots movement and a state-appointed commission created the campaign that successfully pressured de Blasio to support closure.
Often ranked as one of the 10 worst jails in America, Rikers Island drew complaints of civil-rights violations, corruption, violence, and excessive use of force at the jail.
In 2019, the New York City Council officially voted to close Rikers Island, replacing it with four smaller jails spread across the city.
The Council also approved a legal mandate ensuring that no jails will exist on Rikers after 2026, along with investments in community-based services and alternatives to incarceration. The date has since been extended to 2027.
The population in New York City jails topped 20,000 at its height. It had fallen to 3,850 by May 2020.
The population decline is the result of fewer arrests and arraignments because of the COVID-19 pandemic and changes related to bail reforms that took effect Jan. 1, 2020, according to a report from New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Population decreases during this time also are attributable in part to the state’s Raise the Age law, which prohibits the detention of 16- and 17-year-olds in county and New York City jails, according to the report.
Will ‘Defund’ Police Movement Lose Traction?
But the increase in shootings and murders over the last year in New York City appears to place city politicians in a somewhat sensitive position on crime and incarceration.
For the month of March 2021, New York City saw increases in index crimes, with the exception of robbery and burglary. Overall index crime rose 2.4 percent compared with March 2020, driven by a 36 percent increase in murder and a 35 percent increase in grand larceny auto.
During a campaign appearance last Sunday, Yang said the city cannot afford to “defund the police” after a shooting incident involving three bystanders in Times Square the previous day.
“The truth is that New York City cannot afford to defund the police,” Yang said. “When I talk to New Yorkers I get a very different message every single day.”
“New Yorkers are concerned about rising rates of violent crime, petty crime, street homelessness. This is what we are seeing, and we need our city’s leaders to step up right now,” he continued.
Every candidate was invited to complete a questionnaire on their plans to implement the Lippman Plan, named after former NY Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, which calls for the creation of four new borough-based jails and the shuttering of Rikers Island. Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, and Shaun Donovan were the only candidates to complete the questionnaire, and their responses were released during the event.
Adams did not answer the questionnaire or appear on the forum, but also supports closing Rikers.
“Eric supports the closing of Rikers Island on the original timeline and the concept of community-based facilities that allow families and networks of support to be closer to those who are incarcerated,” Adams campaign spokesman Evan Thies told The New York Post in a statement Tuesday.
But last month, Adams criticized the mayor’s plan of building a new, larger jail in Lower Manhattan at the site of the Manhattan Detention Complex.
“I do not support building a jail there,” he said during an April 27 forum.
Community opposition has emerged for several of the planned jails.
Brandon Holmes said in a statement, “It is unacceptable that it has taken this long for candidates to go on the record, responding to the priorities of formerly incarcerated advocates. The fight for the permanent closure of Rikers Island isn’t done yet, and we need to know exactly where our next mayor stands on this issue.”
Holmes added: “There is a great urgency to decarcerate New York City, to defend the human rights of incarcerated people, to divest from systems of punishment, and to redistribute those resources to the people and communities that have been most harmed by mass criminalization and systemic racism. We appreciate all of the campaigns that were willing to speak face-to-face with communities most harmed by Rikers and will hold them accountable to our movement for justice.”
Staff numbers in city jails keep rising, at the same time that the number of jailed falls, said Jullian Harris-Calvin, Director of Greater Justice New York at the Vera Institute of Justice and Vera Action.
“Vera’s research finds that today there are more corrections officers in the Department of Correction budget than there are people incarcerated in NYC jails,” Harris-Calvin said.
“For every three people incarcerated in NYC, there are five officers.”
Rikers Island conditions continue to draw censure.
The city Department of Correction suffers from a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos,” with the use-of-force rate against inmates hitting a five-year high, according to a new report from the federal monitor overseeing New York’s jails, reported The City.
Hours before the scathing report’s release, Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann announced she will be resigning at the end of the month.
Brann is leaving behind a department plagued with a backlog of 1,445 officer disciplinary cases, according to the report, which covers the last six months of 2020.
Earlier this month, a spike in jail officers calling out sick forced the lockdown of the largest facility on Rikers Island.
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report