In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to shut down Rikers Island within ten years. The mayor followed through on the first step of that promise Thursday and released a plan to shutter the notorious jail.
The full proposal spans 51 pages (read it here), and follows that ten-year timeline by suggesting reforms and investments in the city’s correctional system with three broad goals: smaller, safer, and fairer jails. The first point — smaller jails — hinges on vast reductions in the city’s incarceration rate. The plan calls for a 25 percent reduction in the overall daily jail population in five years, from the current of 9,400 to 7,000. Then, in ten years, a plunge to 5,000. (For perspective, the daily jail population hovered around 20,000 in the 1990s, says the report.) The plan demands more efficient bail payments, diversion and recidivism programs, and ways to speed up case times, among other actions, to achieve this population reduction, though much hinges on New York City’s crime levels dropping even further from their record lows.
Reforms for safer jails will include moving all 16- and 17-year-olds off Rikers (a plan the city had proposed last year) and expanding dedicated units for mentally ill inmates. Much of this requires reinvesting back into Rikers to address its existing issues, and also renovating the city’s other existing jails. The report estimates this will come from about $1 billion budgeted in the Department of Corrections capital plan. Finally, to achieve fairer jails, the plan calls for educational and vocational curriculum, improved reentry programs, and greater support for corrections officers and jail staff.
De Blasio said in the plan’s introductory letter that this plan — or any plan to shutter Rikers — can’t be a quick fix. “This will be a long and difficult path,” he said. The proposal establishes an Implementation Task Force that includes the major players, from de Blasio to the city’s district attorneys to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to the yet-to-be-named Department of Corrections commissioner. (The task force still lists Joseph Ponte in the role, but he resigned last month amid a scandal.)
This ambitious plan borrows from the Rikers report issued by a blue-ribbon commission that was released as de Blasio announced his initial decision to close the jail. The centerpiece of that plan called for building smaller jails in each of the boroughs to replace Rikers, and that will likely have to be a huge part of de Blasio’s latest proposal. But the mayor’s road map largely dodges specific details, citing the city’s responsibility in “identifying and developing appropriate sites for new jails.” And that might be the greatest hurdle to shutting Rikers for good: New jails are imperative to any attempt to do that, but they’re bound to face fierce opposition from residents.