New York City has long set the tone in promoting and implementing progressive social support services and criminal justice reform policies in the United States but New York City lawmakers have got it wrong this time.
Mayor de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers and build four skyscraper jails in residential communities actually risks expanding the jail system and losing ground in advancing our low-income communities of color. He has forced the Borough Based Jails plan through the land use review process but he has not articulated a clear and accountable plan for investments in our communities or support services for the current and formerly incarcerated. More importantly, there is no legally binding guarantee that Rikers will close.
A significant percentage of people incarcerated have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses yet have not received proper treatment. Many more continue to be arrested for low-level drug offenses or as a result of substance abuse and sent to prison instead of treatment programs. There are 70 million Americans today with criminal histories and 76 percent of them return back into the system within five years.
How do we end mass incarceration and break the cycle of recidivism? Certainly, not by spending $8.7 billion or more to build the tallest jails in the world. Certainly, not by moving the nearly 1,200+ people currently detained in the Manhattan and Brooklyn Detention Centers to Rikers Island for seven to 10 years with no guarantee that Rikers will close or an accountable plan to deal with the mismanagement and abuses detainees face today.
We need common sense solutions to fix this problem, not more jails. We need progressive plans that include investing in education and housing; that include building community based mental healthcare and drug treatment facilities; that include expanding re-entry and diversion programs, not building bigger and more jails in communities.
Los Angeles did exactly that. They took a huge progressive step in reforming the criminal justice system by choosing to “care first, and jail last” – a mantra Mayor de Blasio, his administration, and the New York City Council should adopt rather than moving forward with the proposed $8.7 billion plan, to build four new mega jails in New York City.
The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to terminate a plan to replace the Men’s Central Jail facility with a $1.7 billion new jail. In doing so, the Supervisors voted to explore ways to invest the billions in a more sensible and progressive manner – like opting for a community based mental health care facility managed by the Department of Health, instead of a new shiny jail managed by the Department of Corrections.
Seattle also provided another model for “care first; jail last” by sending people arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs to treatment facilities first instead of jail. Clearly, people should not be going to jail for the services they need.
We also need to look at programs that help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society that have proven to be successful. We know how society views formerly incarcerated individuals. We have the opportunity to provide them with a second chance, through re-entry programs.
Having been incarcerated and been in solitary confinement, having loved ones and family members make the long trek to Rikers, we know first-hand the challenges of surviving in Rikers and then once out, trying to survive outside of Rikers. We also know that programs like Defy Ventures can offer support to help rebuild lives.
It’s time for New York City lawmakers to be bold, learn from our experiences and other visionary leaders, and invest in criminal justice reform by caring first, and jailing last. Lawmakers should take this opportunity to support measures that will reduce mass incarceration, not promote it.
Coss Marte is CEO and founder of ConBody, a fitness studio focused on employing formerly incarcerated people. Christopher Marte is State Committeeman for the 65th District, co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal and former member of the Young Professionals Board at Defy Ventures.