A More Just New York City: Rethinking Rikers Island

Former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman speaks at a press conference announcing the release of the report by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. With him, from left, are Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark, Public Advocate Letitica James, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Member Rory Lancman, and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso.Former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman speaks at a press conference announcing the release of the report by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. With him, from left, are Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark, Public Advocate Letitica James, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Member Rory Lancman, and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso.


Mayor, Independent Commission Call for Closing Jails on Rikers Island

NEW YORK, N.Y., April 2, 2017 — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to a long-term plan for closing the jails on Rikers Island just as the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released its final report.

"Our success in reducing crime and reforming our criminal justice system has paved a path off Rikers Island and toward community-based facilities capable of meeting our criminal justice goals," de Blasio explained in a statement, while also cautioning, "it will take many years, it will take many tough decisions along the way."

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform — created in 2016 by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman — spent a year developing a blueprint for how to safely reduce the city's jail population. Mark-Viverito and Lippman described the commission's vision for closing the jails on Rikers Island in an op-ed for The New York Times entitled, Closing Rikers Island Is A Moral Imperative. (Click here to listen to a podcast about the Center for Court Innovation's role in helping produce the commission's report, and here for a reflection on the commission's work from Center Director Greg Berman.)

At a packed press conference held in John Jay College of Criminal Justice's moot court attended by a host of local officials and a vocal contingent from the Close Rikers campaign — among them people who had been incarcerated at Rikers Island — Lippman called Rikers "a mass incarceration model that stains everything it touches." Mark-Viverito similarly referred to the facility as “a symbol of dysfunction and violence,” arguing that shifting to a borough-based jail model would lead to a “more humane, effective, community-based justice system.”

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the press conference announcing the release of the commission's report.Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the press conference announcing the release of the commission's report.

The commission is composed of 27 civic leaders from government, academia, business, and the non-profit sector. Among its principal recommendations:

  • The use of Rikers Island must be phased out over the next 10 years and its facilities demolished.
  • In its place, the city should construct a system of smaller, community jails – one in each borough — in civic centers, not residential areas, near the courthouses they serve. Inspired by the best practices employed in other jurisdictions, these facilities would promote the safety of guards and the incarcerated.
  • Based on an extensive data-analysis undertaken by the commission, the city should implement reforms at multiple stages of the criminal justice process designed to cut the total jail population in half over the next 10 years. Recommended reforms include diversion programs for low-level cases; expanding the use of pretrial supervision; simplifying the bail payment process and working toward the elimination of money bail; and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.
  • Plan for a memorial and/or museum to remember the legacy of harm inflicted by Rikers Island, especially on people and communities of color. The commission also made recommendations for the future civic development of the Island.

The Center for Court Innovation worked with a multi-agency team to staff the Lippman Commission and produce its report. The Center's partners in this effort included the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, Vera Institute of Justice, Latham & Watkins LLP, Forest City Ratner Companies, Global Strategy Group, and HR&A Advisors.

A Commitment to Reducing Crime and Incarceration

The Center for Court Innovation has long focused on building and supporting strategies that reduce both crime and incarceration, including Midtown Community Court, Red Hook Community Justice Center, Newark Community Solutions, Bronx Community Solutions, and Brooklyn Justice Initiatives. Many of these programs have been documented to reduce the use of jail by increasing the availability of meaningful alternatives, including community restitution and social services. In recent years, the Center's jail reduction work has expanded to include bail reform, the creation of pretrial supervised release programs, and national technical assistance as part of the MacArthur Foundation's Safety + Justice Challenge, and The Price of Justice, a program of the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

In the News

Selected coverage of the Lippman Commission and the debate over the future of Rikers Island:

The New York Times outlines the report from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's office detailing the city's roadmap for closing Rikers Island in ten years time and replacing it with a network of smaller modern jails.

'How Closing a Jail Could Make New York City Stronger,' a feature from The Nation on Rikers, the work of the commission, and the way forward.

In City & State New York, Commission member Ana Oliveira and John Jay College's Alison Wilkey introduce a new report on the role of gender in the New York City justice system, and how reforms can keep more women out of Rikers.

Former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and our director, Greg Berman, argue in an op-ed in the Daily News that to close Rikers Island, serious action must begin this year.

In The Atlantic, Lippman Commission member and president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, contends Rikers Island is a "microcosm" from which the American criminal justice system can draw important lessons.

The Economist argues "the plan to close Rikers Island reflects a wider improvement" for a city with declining crime and incarceration numbers.

On the New York Slant podcast, former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Center for Court Innovation Director Greg Berman discuss the commission's work and the steps needed to fulfill its recommendations (see here for a transcript of an excerpt).

Center for Court Innovation Director Greg Berman explains what drove the recommendation to close Rikers on the Off-Kilter podcast.

The New York Times surveys the political challenges to replacing the "out of sight, out of mind" incarceration model represented by Rikers.

Closing Rikers will be a struggle, but The Fader reflects on the significance of what has already been accomplished.

Without Rikers, Learning to Love the Jail Next Door, Ginia Bellafante in The New York Times explores the Commission's call for new borough-based jails, and profiles those that already exist.

The Daily News reports on a survey we helped administer on behalf of the Lippman Commission that found "overwhelming" support among New Yorkers for reforming the jail system.

A useful Rikers Island primer from The New York Times: the troubled facility's history, population, and the debate over its future.

The Nation digs into the history of the mounting calls to shutter Rikers and focuses on the organizing work of the #CLOSErikers campaign. 

The Village Voice praises the Lippman commission report as "thoroughly researched and compellingly presented" and weighs the prospects of its central recommendations.

Brutal Force at Rikers Island Continues at an ‘Alarming Rate,' The New York Times on the latest findings of the federal monitor overseeing reforms at the jail complex.

Rikers Plan Marks a Shift for New York City, and its Mayor, Politico reconstructs the events surrounding Mayor de Blasio's decision to support the calls to close Rikers.

In an editorial, The New York Times calls the Lippman Commission’s recommendation to close the jails on Rikers Island, "a specific, sensible, defensible plan."

Closing Rikers Island Is a Moral Imperative, New York Times op-ed by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, introducing the Commission's major findings.

'Belly of the Beast': Former Inmates Hail New York Plan to Close Rikers Island Jail, The Guardian on the history of the campaign to close Rikers Island.

Commission Unveils Plan to Close Rikers Island, WNYC covers the news conference where the commission's report was formally released.

Closing Rikers Goes from Pipe Dream to Policy, City Limits analyzes Mayor Bill de Blasio's decision to back the calls for closure with a transcript of his news conference remarks.

Le maire de New York veut fermer la célèbre prison de Rikers Island, France's Libération on the background to Mayor de Blasio's decision.

Held Indefinitely: Will Anything Ever Change at Rikers Island? City & State New York with a long feature at the end of 2016 on the prospects of closing Rikers.

Rikers Commission Chief Knows the Challenges Ahead, and Says He’s Ready, Politico analyzes the commission's mandate the month after it was announced.

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