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Fewer Jails Won’t Make Fewer Criminals

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Fewer Jails Won’t Make Fewer Criminals

New York City’s closure of Rikers Island is based upon magical thinking. October 17, 2019
New York
Public safety

New York City has approved a plan to close the incarceration facilities on Rikers Island and replace them with four new borough-based jails. When first put forth in 2017, the plan was conditioned on a reduction of the city’s total jail population over the next ten years to about 5,000 inmates by 2026. Unlike Rikers Island—which, at half the size of Central Park, is large enough to hold ten separate low-rise jail facilities, along with parking lots, maintenance areas, and space for outdoor basketball courts and running tracks—the new jails will be high-rise buildings in already-dense urban areas. But community opposition to the new jail-skyscrapers led to an announcement earlier this week that the proposed facilities would be markedly smaller than originally anticipated. A planned 45-story jail in Manhattan will top out at 29 stories, while an originally conceived 39-floor, 395-foot facility in Brooklyn will now rise only 295 feet.

The city has decided to reduce the size of these not-yet-constructed facilities, according to Mayor de Blasio and city council speaker Corey Johnson, because the “expected average daily jail population for 2026 is now 3,300, due to the expectation of fewer people incarcerated.” This sudden one-third drop from the earlier 5,000 estimate was not driven by a change in crime trends—indeed, some serious crimes are trending up—but by the demands of council members in whose districts the new jails would be sited. These council members have refused to approve the construction of larger jails. The city, then, is apparently letting political considerations dictate how large its new jails can be, and then tailoring prisoner-population estimates to fit those circumstances.

Decriminalization of quality-of-life offenses and the elimination of cash bail for most misdemeanors and many felonies are indeed expected to reduce the jailed population—but even so, the new 3,300 target will likely require a significant realignment of expectations about public safety. The number of people in jail in New York City is already historically low, due to concerted efforts to divert low-level offenders into incarceration alternatives. The remaining incarcerated population largely represents a core group of hardened, violent, habitual criminals. The city’s own numbers demonstrate that virtually no one is in jail for marijuana possession, prostitution, or jumping subway turnstiles.

Speaker Johnson mostly attributes the reduction of the estimated population from 5,000 to 3,300 to bail reform, passed in Albany as part of the budget in June. The remainder of the reduction, he says, will represent people no longer sent back to jail, as they are now, after violating “technical” provisions of their parole, such as “missing curfew.” In reality, few parolees get remanded to prison simply for minor violations of the rules, and when they do, they spend only limited time in Rikers before being sent back to prison.

Keeping the number of people in jail below 3,300 will require fewer arrests and the immediate release of serious criminals following arraignment. This agenda is not confined to the far Left—it is the stated goal of a major segment of the city’s criminal-justice complex and is backed by a sizeable minority of its elected officials. The No New Jails coalition, which demands the closure of Rikers Island without replacing the lost capacity, has pushed its abolitionist argument into the mainstream.

The respected Legal Aid Society, which receives hundreds of millions in public dollars to provide legal services to indigent defendants, condemns the “false binary of the Close Rikers plan,” which is “inextricably linked to the gentrification that has gutted Black and Latinx communities.” The organization demands “a future with zero jails in our city, zero jails in our state, and zero jails in our country.” Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who represents the district that will house the Manhattan jail, argues against the new plan on the basis that “our system criminalizes poverty through mandatory surcharges and fees which create modern day debtors’ prisons.”

No evidence exists that anyone in New York City is incarcerated due to such fees.

The plan to close Rikers in favor of smaller jails adjacent to county courthouses is morally neutral, but its actualization has fulfilled the worst suspicions of skeptics, who see the effort as a camouflage for mass decarceration. That remains to be seen. Common sense should tell us, though, that smaller jails may mean fewer inmates—but not fewer criminals.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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