Report: Rikers can close ahead of schedule

A new report on Rikers Island entitled “One Year Forward” was released by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.
Photo by Michael Shain
By Gina Martinez

A follow-up report on Rikers Island said the prison complex can be closed before the 10-year timeline Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year with a few additional amendments to the plan.

Last year the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released the report, “A More Just New York City,” which outlines a plan to close down the infamous prison within 10 years that was adopted by the mayor. In an updated report, “One Year Forward,” the commission said thanks to changes in policy since its last report, the jail population has dropped by nearly 10 percent, showing that the goal can be accomplished even sooner than originally thought. The commission said with state approval of designs, Rikers can close as soon as 2024.

Former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who is chairman of the Independent Commission, said although there have been significant improvements in the last year, that is no reason to be complacent.

“Despite this progress, there is still much work to be done,” he said. “The people affected by our criminal justice system are overwhelmingly black and Latino, and the nine deteriorating and dysfunctional jails on Rikers remain a stain on our city, leaving a permanent mark on everyone they touch. That’s why it’s imperative that we not rest on our laurels, but build on this momentum for closure. By the time the mayor and the City Council speaker leave office, progress should be irreversible.”

The commission, which called the jails on Rikers “brutal and obsolete,” said that to complete a more humane borough system by 2024, the city must continue to cut the number of people in jail and make significant strides in the construction of smaller, modern facilities in the five boroughs. According to the commission, by the end of de Blasio’s second term, construction on at least two sites should be well underway, with design and possibly construction in progress in the others.

The report said transitioning to a borough-based jail system promotes safety, successful re-entry into society, and better access to courts and family members. The report also claims that with design-build authorization from the state government and continued focus from city government, the commission projects that a modern, borough-based system could be constructed in six years. This new timeline would lead to $700 million in cost savings compared to the initial projections, which was an upfront cost of $10.62 billion.

The commission said Albany needs to step up and pass legislation on a state level to limit the use of cash bail. Bail reform legislation that would have limited the use of cash bail was not included in the 2019 state budget, or reforms in the areas of discovery, speedy trial, and parole, the report said. The commission noted that if Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Legislature can enact these reforms by the end of session, it could have a meaningful impact on improving criminal justice and accelerating the time line for closing Rikers.

The report also recommended community engagement in the design process for the borough-based facilities and redesigning the infrastructure on Rikers Island to be potentially used for expansion of LaGuardia Airport. It also suggested interim uses as the jails are phased out, such as developing the solar, energy storage, and composting facilities that are necessary for the city to meet its ambitious clean energy and zero waste goals.

Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), who serves as chairman of the Committee on the Justice System, said this plan can work, but only if de Blasio commits to expanding supervised release, improving the mechanics of paying bail, and investing in the criminal justice reforms proposed by both public defenders and district attorneys.

“As the report spells out, too many people are needlessly run through our court system, predominantly brown and black New Yorkers; too many people are stuck on Rikers, solely because they are too poor to pay bail or cannot pay bail in a timely manner; and too many people are left waiting to have their day in Court,” he said.

Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmartinez@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.

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