The Center for Court Innovation welcomes the attention New York leaders are giving Rikers Island in the wake of the inexcusable and preventable deaths that have occurred there this year. Now is the time for swift and decisive action to prevent more harm and commit to the policies that will close the jails on Rikers Island forever.
Four years ago, with support from our organization, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman issued a report calling for phasing out the Rikers jails over the next 10 years and demolishing the entire facility. The 27 commissioners documented an epidemic of abuse and neglect, from crumbling facilities to a deep-seated culture of violence. In addition, they noted the lasting harms inflicted on individuals and communities, who are disproportionally Black and Brown.
This year we can add to the long list of wrongs the deaths of 12 people. Numerous recent reports confirm that conditions on the island have reached a new low, with severe overcrowding, an inability to provide basic medical care and escalating violence. We must—and can—reduce the population on Rikers Island immediately. And we can do this safely. Working together, the city, state, district attorneys, defenders, courts, and non-profits can take a number of emergency steps, including:
- Promptly reviewing the cases of every single one of the over 4,400 people now held while presumed innocent. There is a growing body of evidence that jail makes communities less safe by increasing rates of reoffending. Not only that, the vast majority of people incarcerated in New York City’s jails—nine out of 10—have not been convicted of a crime; most are being held awaiting trial on bail amounts that they cannot afford to pay or for parole violations. This is morally wrong and a waste of taxpayer money. And judges can impose conditions, such as Supervised Release—which has maintained high court attendance and low re-arrest rates even during the pandemic.
- Resolving the cases of people still detained. Sixty-one percent of people now held pretrial have spent over six months in jail, exceeding the court system’s standard. The Center for Court Innovation offers lessons from a pilot project we ran with the Office of Court Administration and judicial leadership in Brooklyn that could help resolve cases more swiftly.
- Releasing more people held on parole violations. The state could conduct reviews of all people held on technical parole violations or violations stemming from pending nonviolent charges. Such a step would mirror state action at the outset of the pandemic, which contributed to up to 300 releases. To date, Governor Hochul released 191 people who had been in jail for at least 30 days on technical violations. People held on technical violations for less time, as well as some held on a parole violation related to a pending misdemeanor or nonviolent felony charge, may also be strong candidates for release.
- Curtailing incarceration on short jail sentences. The city could swiftly release people serving jail sentences of under a year into the Early Release Program. This program, which the Center participated in, enrolled 296 people at the outset of the pandemic, less than 1% of whom were rearrested for a violent felony charge while supervised.
Having taken reasonable emergency release actions, the city and state can continue to take permanent steps over the ensuing weeks and months. Towards this end, our Roadmap for Reducing Jail in New York City, written with the Lippman Commission and released in July, details nearly 40 concrete, data-driven recommendations to safely reduce the city’s use of jail.
The plan to close Rikers did not call for waiting 10 years and then closing the facility overnight. It called for safely reducing the number of people in city jails through a number of approaches. We must move swiftly to save lives and fix the “mounting culture of violence” on Rikers.