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Rikers Island Fiction

eye on the news

Rikers Island Fiction

A proposal to close New York’s island jail is just a pretense to impose a radical agenda. April 6, 2017
New York
Public safety

New York City’s plan to shut down Rikers Island is a bait-and-switch scheme. The report of Judge Jonathan Lippmann’s blue-ribbon Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, tasked with figuring out what to do with the nation’s largest jail complex, concludes that the city should close Rikers and replace it with smaller, borough-based modern jails. Before that can happen, however, the report says, the city must first reduce its jail population from its present level of about 10,000 to around 5,000.         

Politically and logistically implausible, the Lippmann Report’s recommendations are a ruse. The real purpose of the proposal isn’t to close Rikers: it’s to let 5,000 people out of jail by pursuing a decriminalization agenda that would end Broken Windows policing as we know it and allow miscreants to commit quality-of-life offenses with impunity.

Anchoring the commission’s report is a set of unstated premises which, if put into practice, would radically change the way New York City is policed, beginning with a focus on the negative effects of incarceration on arrestees. “Spending time in jail is bad for you on a host of levels,” the report says, as though the downsides of going to jail were an inadvertent mistake of the judicial system. It’s the same kind of thinking that inspired the proposal of a notorious 2014 city council resolution (not passed) calling on the NYPD to stop arresting subway fare-beaters because “in addition to being very disruptive, an arrest can cause significant stress” to turnstile jumpers. The problem with crime, from this perspective, is the adverse consequences that getting caught has on the criminal.

One way to reduce such stress, then, is to stop viewing certain behavior as criminal. Thus, the commission recommends “reclassifying four charges as civil, and not criminal, matters: theft of services (using public transportation without paying the fare), low-level possession of marijuana in public view, prostitution, and possession of ‘gravity knives.’” By raising the bar of what constitutes crime, we would lower the crime rate and thus have fewer people to punish.

The commission also suggests that the city “look to eliminate sentences of 30 days or fewer” in favor of vaguely defined “community-based alternatives.” The notion that jail should rehabilitate as well as punish is commendable, but the Lippmann Report refuses to acknowledge that the unpleasantness of jail is meant also to deter crime—the threat of a five-day jail sentence for petty theft sounds pointless to liberal advocates, but not to a potential thief, for whom it can be a real restraint. For radical sociologists, however, punishment begets crime; as they see it, the best way to deter deviance is to eliminate its penalty.

The Lippmann Report traffics in pernicious myths about the role of racism in criminal justice, noting that, “Blacks and Latinos comprise slightly more than half of our City’s overall population but are nearly 90 percent of our jail population.” As a result of this imbalance, according to the commission, the system must make “special efforts to address the overrepresentation of Black/African-Americans and Latinos” in the city’s jails.

Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in the city’s jail population because they commit a disproportionate amount of the city’s crime. This tendency is borne out not just in arrest statistics, but in the descriptive reports of victims who register complaints with the police: in fact, the overlap in racial composition between “proactive arrests” and “victim driven arrests” for misdemeanors is almost exact. The data is uncontroversial and available on the NYPD website. It’s not surprising to hear advocates and liberal politicians suggest continuously that nonwhites are the victims of a racist police state, but a commission that praises its own “evidence-based” approach to criminal justice should be more rigorous in its analysis.

The Lippmann Commission’s report goes to a final extreme when it attempts to classify violent criminals themselves as a marginalized group. “Certain populations remained underserved,” the report reads, “including women; young people; people who are LGBTQ; people with mental illnesses; people who suffer from an addiction and are convicted of property crimes; and people charged with serious or violent offenses.” Women, youth, gay or trans people, and the mentally ill are demographic categories, individual members of which may or may not have been done wrong by society: in any case, they are who they are. But in what sense can convicted thieves or people charged with “serious or violent offenses” be considered a group that suffers discrimination, with a presumably actionable demand for restitution? The commission’s report expands the universe of official victims to include those who victimize others.

In theory, closing Rikers is a reasonable idea. There is no reason why the city couldn’t have county jails adjacent to its borough courthouses. New York City doesn’t need to have an insular penal colony holding most of its inmates, who are largely awaiting trial and not guilty of anything (yet). It would be more humane to embed smaller jails in local communities, where family and lawyers would be able to visit more easily.

But if Mayor Bill de Blasio, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and the city’s other leaders were really serious about closing Rikers Island because it is a violent, crumbling hellhole, they wouldn’t insist on a ten-year timeframe contingent on lowering the city’s jail population by 5,000. They would begin building new jails and transferring the Rikers population off-island at once—public opinion be damned.

The reality is that the plan to close Rikers and build smaller jails is politically unrealistic and probably impossible. But the pretense of that goal is a useful screen behind which to eviscerate Broken Windows policing—and return New York to a justice system that focuses primarily on the welfare of the criminal instead of the community.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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