Advocates want criminal justice reform to go beyond simply closing Rikers Island

April 3, 2018 By Edward King Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn Law School held a panel discussion about criminal justice reform as NYC works to close Rikers Island. Pictured from left: Darren Mack, Jill Harris, Rogelio Headley, professor Jocelyn Simonson, Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society and Councilmember Stephen Levin. Eagle photos by Edward King
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As the city is working on a long-term plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with five smaller borough-based jails, including a potential expansion of the Brooklyn House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue, reform advocates gathered together at Brooklyn Law School to discuss the move which will have an enormous impact in our borough.

Brooklyn Law school invited five panelists including Councilmember Stephen Levin; Roger Headly, an advocate from VocalNY; Tina Luongo, chief defender at the Legal Aid Society; Jill Harris, strategy counsel to the Brooklyn District Attorney; and Darren Mack, a leader of the #CloseRikers campaign.

The panel spoke on a variety of pertinent topics regarding the initiative largely related to the immediate impact closing Rikers would have on Brooklyn. They also discussed whether the criminal justice reforms required to make the decision work are actually achievable.

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“My first time [at Rikers Island] at age 17… the population was about 23,000 people, at peak high in the early ’90s,” said Mack. “Rikers, the violence, the brutality, the corruption, I’ve experienced it, I’ve witnessed it, and it’s something that no human being should ever experience. Even just thinking about it brings a lot of emotions because I know people who haven’t survived it.”

In early 2017, an independent body of judges, politicians and advocates released a report that helped spur the decision to close Rikers dubbed the “Lippman Report,” after former Chief Judge of the NYS Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman, who spearheaded the project.

Recent estimates have the average daily population of Rikers Island at close to 9,700 inmates per day, which costs an approximately $247,000 to house each inmate annually. It costs approximately $31 million in annual transportation to bring the inmates to the prison and to court.

While the main focus of the report has been reforms necessary to close Rikers Island, advocates are focused instead on longer-lasting reforms to the criminal justice system as a whole.

Mack and Luongo said that starts both on the state and city level by introducing bail reform and updated discovery procedure, among other measures.  

Prior reforms have shown a positive impact as the total population at Rikers has dropped from 12,000 inmates on average per day in 2014 to approximately 9,700 today. In order to close Rikers, the commission estimated that it would have to reduce the daily average population to close to 4,500 people.

“As much as I believe the Rikers commission, the chief judge and all of the work that has been done to reform the system … every single reform that were doing here in New York City, from supervised release to talking about reforming low-level offenses, it’s just scratching the surface,” Luongo said. “We need legislative reform in Albany to move. Frankly, this was the week to get it done in the budget, and it’s completely stopped.”


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