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The Battle for Rikers
In the six years since Mayor DeBlasio committed to closing the deadly and decrepit Rikers Island jail complex, which traumatizes and impoverishes tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year – making every other social improvement goal harder to attain – momentum has waxed and waned. With the recent news that the US Attorney for Manhattan is joining the demand for the federal courts to take control over Rikers (including the power to hire and fire staff), aka “federal receivership,” and Judge Swain signaling that she is warming up to the idea, it’s a good time to check back in on where things stand and what may be needed next.
The closure plan, adopted by the City Council in 2019, prescribed closure by 2026 (later amended to 2027). In 2017, when DeBlasio declared the jail would close, there were roughly 10,000 people held on Rikers on any given day; today, that number is about 6,000, up 14% on Mayor Adams’ watch. The plan specifies that several new, smaller facilities be built in the boroughs, with capacity to hold 3,300 people, which are under construction. There are additionally 800 beds on “the barge,” an enormous jail boat docked in the Bronx that has been compared by former prisoners to a slave ship. Mayor Adams is fighting hard to keep the federal courts out of his jail business, claiming he can handle it; he further claims the new jails won’t be big enough and is talking ominously about a “plan B.”
Who is keeping up the pressure to avoid back sliding on the city’s commitments? The Freedom Agenda, a membership organization grounded in directly impacted people and their families, anchors a lively coalition with dozens of groups seeking to close the jail. Public defender advocates like Olayemi Olurin, who organized a rally at Rikers and has spoken extensively on TV, have continually made noise. In addition, an independent commission, staffed by longtime NYC jail reduction experts, has provided ongoing policy and research support to jail closure efforts.
But what about this gap in jail bed capacity between current numbers and the plan? The number of jail beds the city “needs” is a function of many factors, from the number of arrests made by NYPD, to whether people are unable to bail out of jail, to the speed of case processing times. Changes in these policies can immediately and dramatically affect the number of people in jail on any given day, as you can read about in this 2022 report funded by Arnold Ventures on the impact of NY’s bail reform laws. I am told that in NYC, practical changes to case processing times that are being proposed by experts could reduce the daily population by 1,200.
If bail reform and case processing changes aren’t enough, we can look to the NYPD to play their part by reducing arrests. But would this be wise, given concerns about crime? For an evidence-based answer, we can look at the case of Cincinnati (h/t to Jonathan Ben-Menachem for his great article that drew my attention to this case). In 2008, due to budget cuts, the county sheriff was forced to close one of their jails, cutting one-third of the city’s jail capacity overnight. Many politicians, police, and other commentators predicted that this would lead to crime and mayhem. However, a 2017 detailed research study, which looked at a 14-year period including years before and after the jail closure, found:
Contrary to the initial concerns of many leaders in Cincinnati, the findings show reductions in violent crime and property crime, along with reductions in misdemeanor and felony arrests in the years after the jail closure. The policing community, and in particular the CPD, was forced to adopt policing strategies that focused less on arrest, while striving to reduce crime. They accomplished this by viewing the use of arrest as a limited commodity and by incorporating a variety of evidence-based policing practices into their operational strategies, which reduced their reliance on the use of arrest to reduce crime….
A simple comparison of 2008 to 2014 shows felony arrests decreased 41.3% and misdemeanor arrests decreased 32.7%; simultaneously, Part I Violent crime decreased 38.5% and Part I Property crime decreased 18.9%.
[The study author kindly shared their report with me; please email me if you’d like to read it and aren’t able to get it online.]
Whether or not there will be political will in New York City to do what needs to be done to close the horrific Rikers Island depends a lot on whether organizers, advocates, and their allies are able to grow momentum over the next few months. Funding will also be needed - stay tuned on that! And for a glance at what’s on the other side of this – closing Rikers not only ends a gruesome chapter for the city, but also opens land for building the city’s renewable energy future, which you can read about more here.