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Reform Meets Reality in Rikers

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eye on the news

Reform Meets Reality in Rikers

Changes to criminal-justice laws have yielded an increasingly dangerous population in the embattled facility. July 28, 2022
New York
Public safety
Politics and law

This month, New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex saw its 11th inmate death since Mayor Eric Adams appointed Louis Molina as Department of Corrections commissioner in January. The tragedy ratchets up pressure on the DOC to improve jail conditions. It also continues a trend of decline under previous mayor Bill de Blasio—a trend so severe that a federal monitor was installed at Rikers in 2016. The jail could come under federal receivership if violence is not reined in.

Why hasn’t the Adams administration imposed safety and order among the jail’s roughly 5,600 inmates (a population down by about 4,000 since 2017)? Much of the answer lies in criminal-justice reforms that have changed the composition of the Rikers population. One in four Rikers inmates now faces murder charges, and over half are mentally disturbed. Reform has given Rikers a group of disproportionately violent, repeat criminal offenders.

New York legislators worked hard to create this reality. In 2016, de Blasio instituted “supervised release” of inmates back to their communities; in 2017, he expanded the program. That same year, the state’s Raise the Age legislation relegated 16- and 17-year-old offenders—including repeat offenders—to family court instead of criminal court. The state legislature passed bail reform in 2019, making burglary, grand larceny, felony drug crime, car theft, and manslaughter charges ineligible for bail. Last September, the Less Is More law released hundreds of paroled offenders who would have otherwise returned to jail. Finally, non-prosecution policies removed officials’ ability to use prosecution as leverage for treatment for the seriously mentally ill.

The effects on the city have been catastrophic: violent crime, on the upswing since 2017, rose with increasing momentum in 2020 and 2021 and has continued to do so. It is now an alarming 36 percent higher than last July, year-to-date. These policies have also affected Rikers. More offenders are going back to jail with reinforced antisocial tendencies and gang affiliations. Further changes within the prison complex have reduced the system’s capacity and safety. Health Department Covid protocols require intake to occur in one consolidated, harder-to-control area. Slower court dispositions increase the number of long-term inmates, who are disproportionately violent—nearly 30 percent of inmates have been in custody for more than one year, and around 278 for more than three years. Another hurdle to securing order: corrections officers (like police) have fewer tools to enforce behavior. The Board of Corrections (BOC), an oversight panel, voted to end punitive segregation in June 2021, which had allowed officers to isolate violent inmates; the DOC is still struggling to replace it with a new tool.

Some officials still aren’t grasping the consequences of their actions. In a public meeting on July 12, the BOC, which remains stocked with de Blasio appointees, chided the DOC for a 63 percent increase in violent incidents since 2016. But some BOC members attributed the surge to racism: Rikers inmates are around 56 percent black and 33 percent Hispanic. Longtime BOC member Robert Cohen—who had previously scolded Mayor de Blasio for reforming too slowly—insisted that DOC commissioner Molina, himself Hispanic, exhibited “structural racism.” Cohen recommended that “the Department should discharge” inmates from jail. Indeed, it’s a common sight at BOC meetings for representatives of such organizations as the Legal Aid Society, the Bronx Defenders, and the Urban Justice Center to lambast the DOC for its racist inhumanity. Meantime, corrections officers express concern for the safety of their colleagues (who are 60 percent black and 24 percent Hispanic) and ask for resources to keep door locks operational and to search housing for weaponized shards of plexiglass.

Can Molina reform his department? In his half-year tenure, he created a Management Analysis & Planning Unit, designed to understand better where the problems lie and to fix them. He fired an officer immediately following the year’s tenth inmate death. But the connection between city and state reform policies and the mayhem in Rikers puts much of the challenge out of his hands.

For the DOC to have any success, New York lawmakers should reverse course on a reform agenda that sees only racism and recommends only the release of inmates. Criminal-justice reform hasn’t made violence disappear on the streets—on the contrary. Don’t expect it to make violence disappear at Rikers, of all places.

Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

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