Closing Rikers Island, and Re-envisioning Jail in New York City

By: Nora McDonnell

Featured Jurisdictions Interagency Collaboration Jail Populations May 4, 2020

Earlier this month, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released A More Just New York City, a report detailing its recommendations for reforming New York City’s criminal justice system. Based on a full year of inquiry, the Commission unanimously recommended closing Rikers Island jail, reducing the city’s jail population by half, and moving towards a borough-based jail system.

The Commission’s report marks a landmark moment for criminal justice in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that it is now the city’s official policy to close the Rikers Island jail.

Written with support from three members of the Safety and Justice team—the Center for Court Innovation, the Vera Institute of Justice, and CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance—the report embodies many of the core elements of the Safety and Justice Challenge, namely the strategic use of data to keep individuals out of jail at every step of the justice process.

The Commission was convened in April 2016 following City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s call for an entity to explore “how we can get the population of Rikers [Island] to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.” Chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and comprised of 27 members from a wide range of backgrounds, the Commission spent a year analyzing local data, engaging with experts and stakeholders, and studying national models for justice reform.

Due in large part to a well-documented culture of violence and the Island’s isolation, Rikers has become notorious as a national symbol of broken justice, making its closure a monumental step not just for New York City, but for the country. The Island’s seclusion from New York City communities has promoted an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, created enormous operational inefficiencies, and taken a powerful toll both in financial terms—it costs $247,000 to incarcerate a person for one year—and in human impact, disrupting the lives of thousands of individuals along with their families, housing, education, and employment opportunities.

A More Just New York City outlines concrete strategies for reducing the current jail population from 9,700 to fewer than 5,000—a size that would enable the city to shutter Rikers Island and replace it with a borough-based system over the next ten years. On any given day, three quarters of the city’s jail population is detained pretrial without having been convicted of a crime, largely because they cannot afford bail. The report proposes reforms to the bail system, including the elimination of cash bail, and investments in pretrial diversion services that can substantially reduce the number of individuals detained in jail while awaiting a disposition.

A significantly reduced jail population would enable the city to transition to a community-based model with facilities located in close proximity to existing courthouses in each borough. Moving away from the outdated design of the Island’s current facilities, borough-based facilities would embody state-of-the-art principles in jail design that foster a healthy and humane environment for the people detained and working within them. The Commission also undertook a robust study of the future of the Island beyond its use as a jail facility, focusing on pathways to transform the Island from a place of harm to a site of progress and benefit for the city. The report recommends using the Island to expand LaGuardia Airport and locate greatly-needed green infrastructure that would meet the city’s growing needs, while producing significant economic activity and employment opportunities.

Despite national trends, over the past twenty years New York City has shown that it is possible to simultaneously reduce crime rates and the use of incarceration. Yet as has been well-documented, much more work is needed. Exemplifying the goals of the Safety and Justice Challenge, A More Justice New York City provides a roadmap for New York City and jurisdictions around the country to significantly reduce and re-envision their jail systems to embody basic human and civic values of fairness and justice.

New York City is a Safety and Justice Challenge partner site.