Why did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had for two years resisted calls to close Rikers, suddenly change his mind this particular Friday? Was it because a commission headed by Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the state, was two days from releasing a report that would map out a plan for shuttering the facility? Was it that de Blasio didn’t want to have to work within a framework set out by the judge? Why did he announce it on a Friday afternoon at an unscheduled event? Why didn’t he produce so much as a brochure to explain his approach, given that Lippman is going to dish out 97-page keepsakes come Sunday?
These are interesting and very valid questions. It’s worth pausing a moment, however, to recognize that the city of New York is now officially committed to closing its island jail complex. That is, to paraphrase Joe Biden, a really big deal. Why de Blasio is doing it is important, but not as important as the fact that he is doing it.
In announcing the move, de Blasio didn’t shy from the fact that he was reversing himself—something politicians have become terrified of doing (lest people like me paint them as inconsistent) and that de Blasio has been particularly allergic to. He laid out not a plan but a pretty clear vision: keep reducing crime, improving court performance and pumping services into Rikers to reduce jail population to 7,000—at which point the move to alternative facilities starts, with Rikers getting evacuated fully once the population falls below 5,000. Heck, by beating Lippman to the punch, de Blasio was actually early for something. That has to count for something, no?
Sixteen months ago, City Limits and City & State published Closing Rikers, a series that explored the case for and the complications of ending the island’s correctional use. Now that the case has been made, the complications will loom large. De Blasio didn’t pretend that he knew how many new jails would be needed or where they would go. He indicated he won’t listen to calls to move faster than the decade-long pace he has prescribed. And since the plan will take 10 years to roll out, de Blasio’s successor will have to make the big final decisions. But the first half of the plan is likely to occur under de Blasio’s watch. There’s no guarantee this will happen: policies can change, especially if crime soars or other conditions give a future mayor a reason to rethink. But as of now, even if it’s not on paper, closing Rikers is the plan.
Friday was just the start of a long argument over how to reduce the jail headcount, where to stick the new jails we might need, whether de Blasio’s timeline is too fast or too slow and—don’t forget—what to do with the island after its empty (I hear it has river views).
But here is what the mayor said to start a new chapter in the history of crime and punishment in the big city:
Good afternoon, everyone. I’m here with Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to make what is really a historic announcement. New York City will close the Rikers Island jail facility. It will take many years, it will take many tough decisions along the way, but it will happen.
Speaker Mark-Viverito and I have reached an agreement on how to proceed, and we look forward to working together in the years to come to make this a reality. I want to make clear, this is the first time in 85 years since Rikers Island opened in 1932 that the official policy of the City of New York will be to end our efforts on Rikers Island and close the jails there. So, it is a historic occasion that for the first time in 85 years, we have an agreement to move off Rikers Island.
Now, I emphasize, this will not happen overnight. This is going to take a lot of work. There is not quick fix here and anyone who says there is a quick fix isn’t being honest.
My colleagues standing with me from my administration – Commissioner Joe Ponte from Correction and the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Elizabeth Glazer. Both of them have been and will be deeply involved in the efforts going forward. They can certainly attest to how much will have to be done to achieve this goal. But we are devoted to making this change.
Rikers Island is an example and an expression of a major national problem. The mass incarceration crisis did not being in New York City, but it will end here. We are going to end the era of mass incarceration by making this important change. It’s very important – before I turn to the Speaker – to acknowledge upfront the crucial role she has played. And everyone knows that Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and I have had a very close working relationship for over three years. We are partners in this work – that doesn’t mean we always agree, but it does mean we are in constant dialog and we’re working to find solutions together.
The Speaker did something extraordinarily important here by looking constantly for a new solution and pushing hard for a path that would get us to this day. And I will be clear, there were many times I could not see that path – and many attempts we made to find a path off of Rikers Island that we did not find effective – but the Speaker kept not only pushing, but offering more and more ideas and more alternatives to help us get there. Her work has been crucial in bringing us to this day.
I want to thank you, Speaker, for having brought this issue more fully to the attention of the people of this city and having worked so constructively with us to find a solution. I also want to thank Judge Jonathan Lippman, who I’ve had the honor of working with on many issues over many years, for the great work that he has done and the many conversations that he’s had with me and my team that have also been very, very helpful in this process.
Now, let’s be clear what this is going to take. This begins with lowering the jail population overall. I reminded people as recently as a couple of days ago when we made another announcement on Corrections – we haven to only Rikers, we have other elements to our jail system. We have to reduce our jail population overall, and that begins and ends with reducing crime.
So, this is how the pieces fit together. Job-one is to reduce crime. Reducing crime means reducing jail population. Any talk of getting off Rikers is meaningless if we don’t keep reducing crime. We came to the conclusion in recent weeks as we looked more and more at the trajectories and as we looked at the extraordinary work the NYPD had done that this goal was more attainable than ever before. I want to remind you, since I took office, because of the extraordinaryy work of the NYPD and our community partners, overall crime in this city is down nine percent. So, in just three years, overall crime is down nine percent. If we can continue on that trajectory, it will allow us to get off of Rikers Island. So, job-one is to continue the work of reducing crime.
The neighborhood policing model is absolutely essential to this, and then there’s other pieces of the equation that my colleagues have worked on and the Speaker has been a champion of, such as alternative sentencing and bail reform. These have been crucial pillars of reducing jail population the right way while still protecting public safety. And all of this has had an extraordinary impact on the number of people in the jail system. On Rikers Island alone, the population is down 23 percent over the last three years. So, again, a reduction in crime, alternative sentencing bail reform – a number of measures have come together to reduce the Rikers population already by 23 percent in just three-years time. That’s another reason we have confidence that this can be done.
We’re proud to already have the lowest incarceration rate of any major city in the United States. In our jails, 161 for every 100,000 New Yorkers compared to just 100 miles away in Philadelphia – and I say this with sorrow and with great respect for Philadelphia – but in Philadelphia, 810 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents. So, our city has already shown we can reduce mass incarceration. Now, we’re going to have to go a lot farther.
Today, we’ve got about 9,500 people in custody in our entire jail system. That number must get down to 5,000 people to allow us to get off of Rikers Island. That’s the goal in this whole process – to get our jail population – overall – all of our jails combined – down to 5,000 people. We believe that can be achieved in the next 10 years. That is the goal that the Speaker and I have agreed to – a 10-year timeline. Again, it will take a lot of work and a lot of things have to go right in that 10-year timeline to reduce the overall jail population to 5,000 – and that allows us to get to a point of complete departure of all inmates from Rikers Island.
Now, it’s a very important thing that the Speaker and I see eye-to-eye on how we’re going to get this process underway, and there’ll be a lot of work ahead with the City Council, but our other partners have to be a part of this as well. The State of New York – we’re going to see both the will and the resources because the State of New York plays a crucial role, of course, through our court system and our Office of Court Administration. We need our courts to work to be evermore efficient to reduce processing time, to move people in and out of jail more effectively – because one of the problems on Rikers is how long people stay. We want to reduce those times constantly. We also need cooperation from our prosecutors, who have been our close partners in the work reducing crime – they also are important to this equation to continue moving along the judicial process as efficiently as possible.
We talked a couple of days ago – and another crucial piece of the puzzle will be reducing recidivism. So, if you think about – all of these pieces are about bringing down that population constantly. Reducing recidivism is a big piece of the puzzle. And we talked earlier in the week about the five hours of programming a day that we’ll be proving to every inmate. Education and training, the re-entry planning – every inmate will get it from literally the day they arrive on Rikers [inaudible] ready to get off and stay off of Rikers, and all of our jails. And the Jails to Jobs initiative, guaranteeing that anyone who is sentences and serves time in our jail system will leave to a transitional job that will help to get them back on their feet, into long-term employment and away from ay trouble with law enforcement and any further encounter with incarceration. All of these pieces need to work, and we plan on continuing full bore on all of them to achieve our overall goal.
Now, this is not easy. Before I turn to the Speaker, I want to make this point – this will not be easy. We’re talking about a decade – a decade is a long time. There will be a lot tough choices, there will be a lot of challenges. Some have said to me, can’t you close Rikers right this minute? It would be both impossible and irresponsible to pander to those kind of demands. I want to be very clear, I’m not in the name of political expedience going to tell some people what they want to hear. Closing Rikers – it will happen, but it’ll be a difficult path and it will take us a decade.
This problem was created over many decades and it will take time to solve, but we fundamentally believe it can be solved. And, for New York City, this is both about continuing the work of ensuring that more and more people in this city can live their lives the right way and stay out with any encounter with law enforcement, stay out of jail have a better life, but it’s also New York’s way of contributing to the larger national effort to end the scourge of mass incarceration once and for all.