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Time for a Rikers Plan B

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Time for a Rikers Plan B

New York City’s closure scheme relies on borough-based jails too small to keep inmates and civilians safe. January 20, 2023
Public safety
New York
Politics and law

Mayor Eric Adams is getting cold feet about closing Rikers Island. On the campaign trail, Adams promised to close New York City’s infamous jail complex. But as the city’s crime rate has soared, the mayor has been telling reporters that the city needs a “Plan B,” arguing that the intended replacement—four borough-based jails with room for 3,300 people—won’t be big enough. Adams renewed his call after Department of Correction (DOC) commissioner Louis Molina told the city council that a population below 3,300 is unlikely before legally mandated closure in 2027. In fact, the DOC projects the jail population will soon eclipse 7,000 people.

Advocates of closure have disagreed vociferously, but Adams is right. The borough-based jails would be too small to detain safely everyone who needs detaining. Using them as the only jails in a city of over 8 million people will mean either dramatic, probably illegal, overcrowding, or the release of hundreds of violent criminals into an already crime-wary NYC. The city needs to keep some part of Rikers operational, or to find jail beds somewhere else.

The city has made progress in shrinking its jail population. When the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform—usually called the Lippmann Commission after its chairman, Jonathan Lippmann—first called for Rikers to be closed, the facility housed 9,700 people. By 2019, that number had fallen to an average daily population of 5,500, with a prisoner-to-population ratio far lower than comparable cities. Then, the pandemic forced a dramatic increase in diversion, and population dipped as low as 3,800—unprecedented, but still too high. In fact, the jail has not seen a sub-3,300 population in almost 100 years.

One of the consequences of the drive to shrink Rikers is that most of the offenders who are easy to release or divert are no longer in jail. Of the roughly 5,200 pretrial detainees in DOC custody as of mid-December, 29 percent faced homicide charges, and another 46 percent were there for rape, burglary, robbery, assault, or weapons offenses.

Much of Rikers’s population, in other words, is made up of serious, violent offenders. That’s been true for a while: as I observed in a recent Manhattan Institute report, the composition of Rikers is such that even if DOC released all but those incarcerated for violent or gun felonies and a handful of serious flight risks, the population still would have rarely fallen below 3,300 in the last five years.

Rising crime in the city compounds the problems. Closing Rikers always depended on the assumption that crime in New York City would continue its long decline. Instead, it has spiked over the last three years, with a particular increase in violent crimes, the incidence of which most tightly correlates with jail population level. That’s a big reason why the jail population is approaching 7,000. Even if crime goes back down, a too-small jail system would remain a bet that it will never rise again—a dangerous wager.

When the Lippmann Commission first recommended closing Rikers, it called for building five jails, with capacity for 5,000 inmates. This was the number that the Bill de Blasio administration expected when it took its Rikers closure plan before the City Planning Commission, mere months before final city council approval. Then, two days before the council voted, the plan suddenly changed—securing passage but ensuring that New York’s new jails would be one-third smaller.

No doubt the situation on Rikers—decaying facilities, guard absenteeism, and 19 deaths last year alone—is unsustainable. But just because one facility is failing does not mean the facilities meant to replace it are adequate.

In any case, pursuing an alternative plan does not necessarily entail keeping Rikers open. More jail capacity can be found elsewhere if the money and political will exists. The city could obtain and refurbish two currently shuttered prisons in Manhattan: Lincoln and Bayview correctional facilities. Together, they would add more than 700 beds. Jails on Long Island and in Westchester County have thousands of empty beds. The city could “board out” the 500 to 600 prisoners still serving determinate sentences to these jails, just as some long-serving prisoners are now housed in state facilities.

Lawmakers could also consider erecting additional, smaller jails, which are easier to manage and less likely to face public backlash. Long Island would be the obvious home for one such facility. Another could go next to the Bronx Hall of Justice, where then-borough president Rubén Díaz wanted the main Bronx Borough Jail to be built back in 2019.

Another option, however, is to keep at least some of the facilities on Rikers open. While parts of the complex have been shuttered, it still can house more than 11,000 people. The Lippmann Commission maintains that totally rebuilding Rikers would be more expensive and take longer than building the borough jails. But a partial refurbishment, even of just one or two of the island’s facilities, would help shore up the city’s soon-to-be-paltry capacity.

These ideas are neither cheap nor perfect. But they are better than the dangers of an overcrowded jail, or of a mass release of violent offenders. City lawmakers can’t continue to pretend that crime will keep falling, or that the right technocratic tweak will dramatically shrink jail population. It’s their duty to keep New Yorkers safe. They need to act now, not wait for disaster.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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