‘Jail separates people from work and family, jeopardizes stable housing, and subjects them to violence, especially in inhumane environments like Rikers. Incarceration must be the option of last resort, used only when it is essential for public safety.’
New York City’s next generation of leaders will take up the triple challenge of gun violence, mounting racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and perennially brutal jail conditions on Rikers Island.
While some may pit the fundamental imperative for public safety against the clear need for systemic reform, mayoral candidate Eric Adams has it right: the two are symbiotic and essential to our city’s future. Nowhere is that clearer than in the need to follow through on the city’s commitment to close the Rikers jail complex forever.
To get there, we will need political will, a plan, and partnership.
Public safety is critical to the future of our city, but we cannot incarcerate ourselves to safety. Jail should be used with more precision than it is today.
Research from across the country—including New York—has consistently found that while jailing people temporarily incapacitates them, it leads to more, not less, criminal activity following their release. Jail separates people from work and family, jeopardizes stable housing, and subjects them to violence, especially in inhumane environments like Rikers. Incarceration must be the option of last resort, used only when it is essential for public safety.
That may well be the case for some people charged with serious offenses. That’s why closing Rikers is tied to the creation of smaller, more humane borough-based facilities. But many of the people on Rikers are not threats to public safety and can be safely monitored in the community (through existing, proven effective programs like Supervised Release), where they can maintain family ties and employment. Currently, about 1,400 people have been in jail for over a year waiting for their cases to be resolved, most unable to afford the bail amount set by the court.
In addition, the population on Rikers demonstrates pervasive racial inequities: compared to 24 percent of the city’s general population, Black New Yorkers now make up 60 percent of the jail population. All this costs a staggering $447,000 annually per person.
Notably, while we can reasonably disagree on the nature and pace of criminal justice reform legislation, hard evidence debunks the idea that bail reform has driven our city’s recent spike in violence. The reforms left intact judges’ ability to set bail or remand people for nearly every gun crime, including those most commonly charged in the city. A New York Post analysis of NYPD data found that of 528 shootings examined, only one person released due to bail reform was charged with a shooting. Of 478 people arrested for gun offenses in March 2021, 33 were out on their own recognizance on a previous case—the exact same number as in March 2019, before bail reform was even passed. Furthermore, similar spikes occurred in dozens of other cities where bail laws remained the same.
So, in the real world divorced from hyperbole, let’s look at some obvious things we can do to simultaneously promote justice and public safety, while closing Rikers and reducing needless incarceration.
A new report from A More Just NYC and the Center for Court Innovation details an actionable, data-driven path to closing Rikers safely. Putting an end to Rikers hinges on, over time, reducing the number of people locked up on any given day. The good news is that New York City is building on nearly 30 years of successful reforms that have reduced crime and the population on Rikers, down from over 20,000 people in 1991 to about 5,800 today.
To push the numbers lower, the new report recommends that policymakers empower a permanent working group on racial disparities and invest in community needs for the predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods that are disproportionately impacted by crime and incarceration.
At the same time, jail reduction starts with crime prevention. To reverse the recent spike in shootings, we must use the effective Cure Violence model and policing strategies focused on the small number of people and places that are specifically driving gun violence (while avoiding the racially discriminatory over-policing of the stop-and-frisk era). Smart, community-based policing and prevention will get us where we need to go.
All elements of the system must work together to handle cases safely and smartly. Policymakers can work together to swiftly end the enormous (and understandable) case backlogs caused by COVID-19. Simply returning to pre-pandemic case processing speeds would mean nearly 750 fewer people stuck on Rikers on any given day. The court system has done a remarkable job during the pandemic and its efforts continue to bear fruit.
District attorneys and courts can safely reduce the number of people on Rikers who are held while awaiting trial and presumed innocent (about 85 percent of the current population) by referring them to services or enrolling them in Supervised Release. The facts support a non-jail approach in many instances: the vast majority of New Yorkers released before trial attend every court date, and fewer than 1 percent are re-arrested for a violent felony in any given month.
Another strategy, proven in other cities, creates interagency teams to identify people in jail who can be safely released and people with long-standing cases that can be quickly resolved.
The city and state must expand partnerships with community-based groups and invest in supportive housing and treatment for people with serious mental illness who are currently sent to Rikers—and are highly vulnerable there. And there should be a strong presumption in favor of community-based options for women and people ages 55 and over, who also face heightened risks in jail and pose less risk to others when released with needed support.
It is up to all of us to see beyond the headlines and embrace an actionable and humane plan to close Rikers, implement evidence-based jail reduction policies, and enhance public safety. The city’s next generation of policymakers can show the nation that safety, racial equity, and justice go hand in hand.
Courtney Bryan is the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation. Jonathan Lippman is a former chief judge of New York State, current chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, and of counsel at Latham & Watkins LLP.