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What the New York Times Gets Wrong on Rikers

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eye on the news

What the New York Times Gets Wrong on Rikers

The paper’s latest editorial is full of analytical mistakes. September 23, 2021
New York
Public safety

Progressives have wanted to close down Rikers Island for years, viewing the shuttering of the city’s jail complexes there as a symbolic blow against “mass incarceration.” The editorial board of the New York Times, one of the institutions leading the campaign, argued last week that Rikers’s worsening problems of decay and violence are more evidence that too many people remain in jail. Unfortunately, the article’s analytical errors and unwarranted assumptions culminate in policy recommendations likely to make things worse.

The Times and the conventional wisdom that it represents have already won the argument, in many respects. Over the last few years, the city has delivered a number of the reforms advocates demanded. Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, the jail population has been more than halved. The New York City Department of Correction has dramatically scaled back the use of punitive segregation, also known as solitary confinement. The city has greatly restricted correction officers’ use of force. Teenage suspects and offenders are now off the island and in less restrictive facilities. And two years ago, de Blasio signed legislation that would shutter the island’s jails and replace them with a far smaller, borough-based high-rise jail system in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens.

Yet despite these victories, actual conditions at the jail complex—which houses nearly 6,000 people, most of them awaiting trial—remain horrific. This year, 12 inmates have died in custody, including two men in the last week (though one was not technically on the island). Inmates fester in overcrowded intake areas for days before jail officers assign beds. Medical care and food are scarce. Violence among inmates and between guards and inmates is up.

But in highlighting these inhumane conditions, the Times editorial board misdiagnoses the problem. “New York, like the rest of the country, locks up far too many people for no good reason,” the editorial asserts. To its credit, the editorial board acknowledges the sharp reduction in the city jail population since de Blasio took office. But it argues that this doesn’t go far enough, costing the city millions that it might otherwise save. This last claim reflects a misguided calculation of the per-inmate cost of incarceration, a figure arrived at by dividing the DOC budget by the inmate population—but much of the department’s costs are fixed.

This diagnosis also ignores recent changes in the incarcerated population. Releases of nonviolent or less violent inmates over the past few years have left an incarcerated core that is more violent. Two-thirds of Rikers inmates face violent felony charges. The over-incarceration claim is not only inconsistent with the violent background of many Rikers inmates but also at odds with the de Blasio administration’s official explanation for why violence in city jails has gotten so out of hand: that its successful decarceration campaign has left behind a population of harder-to-manage offenders.

Such reforms are likely to continue. Last week, New York governor Kathy Hochul signed into law one of the Times’s recommendations, releasing hundreds of convicted felons on parole sent back to jail for “technical” violations of the terms of their release. The focus on parole violators stems from the charge that parolees had their releases revoked merely for minor violations. But the evidence for this is weak. While data from New York are thin, evidence from other jurisdictions tends to show that many technical violators committed multiple infractions prior to revocation, were charged with new crimes that triggered the enforcement of a violation, or chose incarceration over an alternative. An analysis of technical probation violators in Tarrant County, Texas, for example, found that offenders under supervision averaged nearly three technical violations per month over 22 months prior to revocation; that 18 percent of offenders “were actually arrested for a new offense while under supervision, but for various reasons were not coded as such in the computerized case management system”; and that “close to 20 percent of offenders opted to ‘take their time’ when offered treatment or other alternatives to incarceration when facing revocation.”

The editorial board suggests that further decarceration could actually improve public safety outside of jail. To make this claim, the board relies on a single study associating longer stays in pretrial detention with higher recidivism rates later on. What the Times leaves out, however, was that the study found higher recidivism only for low-risk defendants. “For high-risk defendants,” the study noted, “there was no relationship between pretrial incarceration and increased crime,” suggesting “that high-risk defendants can be detained before trial without compromising, and in fact enhancing, public safety and the fair administration of justice.” Releasing these same individuals into New York neighborhoods will carry a significant cost to public safety.

A higher proportion of high-risk inmates is no excuse for jail mismanagement, however. That the share of the jail population at a high risk of violent misbehavior has grown doesn’t change the fact that the absolute number of such inmates has fallen. It should be easier to manage seven problem inmates in a group of ten than it is to manage ten problem inmates in a group of 20.

So why are violence indicators moving in the wrong direction at Rikers? The answer probably has more to do with the de Blasio administration’s reforms on punitive segregation and use of force, which have functionally handcuffed corrections officers and created a more dangerous environment for inmates and staff alike. The evidence clearly shows that as the city’s jails became less restrictive, its inmates became more violent. Between 2014 and 2020, for example, inmate-on-inmate violence jumped nearly 70 percent—much of the increase happening after the city scaled back solitary confinement. Last week, the president of the Correction Captain’s Association, Patrick Ferraiuolo, told the New York Post, “We’re almost at a point where [solitary confinement] is almost non-existent, creating a dangerous environment for not only staff, but inmates who are really just looking to do their time on Rikers Island without any issues.” Benny Boscio, head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, was more pointed in his comments to the Post, saying, “They’ve taken away all our tools and now we have total mayhem.”

It doesn’t require a giant leap to see how this change in the risks faced by defanged correction officers might be related to the staffing crisis—one-third of guards are absent on any given day—that is almost surely intensifying the violence problem. Many, including current DOC commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, have suggested that staffing shortages are driven in part by coordinated “sick-outs.” (That underscores the potential problems associated with strong public-employee union protections that make it harder to discipline officers who don’t come to work.)

Rather than grapple with the possibility that violence has worsened as the costs of misbehavior for inmates have been lowered, the Times lays the blame at the feet of bail-reform opponents. Because the bail reform that New York State enacted two years ago, allowing most nonviolent felony offenders to go free without posting cash, was ever-so-modestly “rolled back,” the editorial board argues, the Rikers Island population is “significantly” higher thanks to the incarceration of those “locked up simply for being poor.” The Times offers zero evidence for this proposition. It also ignores the empirical evidence showing that more lenient pretrial-release practices are associated with increases in both crime and failures to appear in court. The proportion of violent felony arrests constituted by offenders with open cases jumped by more than 27 percent in the first nine months of 2020.

De Blasio’s attempt to show superficial progress on the Close Rikers project has also likely contributed to inhumane conditions and violence in jail. In late 2019, just after signing the four-borough jails plan into law, the mayor pledged to close two jail facilities: the Brooklyn detention complex and one building, Taylor, on Rikers. “These two closures show that we are making good on our promise to close Rikers Island and create a correctional system that is fundamentally smaller, safer and fairer,” de Blasio said at the time. Not so. The closure of Taylor last year, in particular, has contributed to overcrowding for new inmates going through the intake process. In fact, the mayor actually reversed this closure this week, promising to reopen Taylor “as we speak.” This dizzying reversal is yet more evidence that neither the mayor nor the city council have thought through the practicalities of the four-borough jail program, which is already two years behind its original schedule of 2026.

Meantime, inmates are on their own.

Editor’s note: Two corrections have been made to this story: “incarcerated parole violators” has been changed to “technical violators,” and “technical parole violators” to “technical probation violators.”

Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

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