NYC’s plan to close Rikers Island jail complex is not going to cut it
If New York City closes the jail complex on Rikers Island, as it is slated to do in 2027, the “borough-based jails” erected in its place will leave the city with room for just 3,300 detainees. That’s nowhere near enough, I argue in a new Manhattan Institute report: Nearly 6,000 people are on Rikers right now, and with crime still rising, that population will only grow.
Some people aren’t convinced. Speaking to The Post, state Senate Correction Chair Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), a leading advocate of closure, claimed that the report didn’t consider how jailing fewer people for minor crimes might make closure easier.
The city should try to cut crime with “improved access to medical and mental health care, increased use of proven restorative justice practices, safe and affordable housing, and real job opportunities with living wages,” Salazar added.
With all due respect to Sen. Salazar, she’s either misleading The Post’s readers or doesn’t know herself what’s going on on Rikers.
As of early November, nearly half of the 5,200 people in pretrial detention were there for murder, attempted murder, homicide, or a weapons offense. Another quarter were in for rape, robbery or burglary, all usually violent crimes. Free everyone else on Rikers today — drug dealers, other felons, and all misdemeanants — and DOC would still be detaining nearly 4,000 people, well north of the borough-based jails’ maximum capacity 3,300.
November isn’t an outlier. Using almost six years of daily DOC data, I looked at what scenarios would bring Rikers’ population under 3,300. Even under the most generous arrangement, in which all but violent and gun offenders, and roughly 12% otherwise assumed to be flight risk, were detained, daily population would only have slipped below the 3,300 line in the depths of COVID. If your decarceration goals depend on a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, they aren’t happening.
There’s a simple reason for this: In deciding whom to release, New York has already picked all the low-hanging fruit. To do that, it tried the approach Salazar endorses: The city runs some of the nation’s most progressive alternative-to-detention programs, and has invested hundreds of millions in restorative justice and supervised release. Bail reform and parole reform have also led to the release of hundreds of individuals from city jails.
These approaches have kept New Yorkers who shouldn’t be in jail on the streets — and released some who ought to have been locked up. But with a jail-to-population ratio well below other major cities’, New York City is out of easy cases. Even the Lippman Commission, the panel charged with overseeing Rikers’ closure, acknowledged that 8 in 10 pretrial detainees are violent felons, insisting “this reality underscores that further decarceration depends, in part, on a willingness to try a different approach with people whose alleged crimes involve violence.”
New Yorkers know better. There are simply too many serious, violent offenders in the city for the borough-based jails to hold them all. This is doubly so because crime continues to rise, meaning more people that need to be held pretrial.
The city can’t forge ahead with the borough-based jails plan without recognizing this reality. If it has too few jail beds, it will risk either overcrowding — which is dangerous and even unconstitutional — or releasing serious, violent offenders back on to the streets.
There are solutions short of keeping Rikers: refurbish old jails like Lincoln and Bayview, build additional smaller ones on Staten Island or in The Bronx, and send post-trial detainees to Long Island or Westchester County. But those solutions won’t get discussed as long as leaders like Salazar put ideology over evidence, and refuse to see the problem staring them in the face.
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.