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The city’s new post-Rikers Island jails will be smaller

May 6, 2019 Reuven Blau and Rosa Goldensohn, THE CITY

This story was originally published on May 6 by THE CITY.

The de Blasio administration promises to further reduce the size of its four planned borough-based jails – predicting a steeper drop in the inmate population, thanks to criminal justice reforms, THE CITY has learned.

City Hall also wants the Rikers Island replacement lockups, slated for each borough except Staten Island, to be more reflective of surrounding buildings.

“It’s our aim to be working with each of the neighborhoods to make these buildings at a scale that integrates into the neighborhood,” said Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) Director Elizabeth Glazer.

Exactly how much each facility will be shrunk has yet to be decided.

“There are a lot of nuances here,” Glazer said. “It’s different for every site. We can’t say what the complete reduction will be, but it’s something within the next few weeks we’ll have a good answer on.”

As part of the city’s Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island, officials predicted two years ago that the jail population, currently about 7,500, would decline to 5,000 by 2027. That number is now expected to drop to 4,000, according to MOCJ.

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The main reason: State lawmakers recently passed bail reform to keep more defendants out of jail before trial.

City officials believe that overhaul will reduce the number of pretrial detainees in city lockups by close to half. About 5,500 pretrial detainees are currently in the system, records show.

Another factor pointing to a jail population decline: City officials expect state lawmakers to loosen rules for parole violators, limiting the list of infractions that lead to automatic re-incarceration.

As THE CITY recently reported, the NYPD will soon issue so-called desk appearance tickets for most misdemeanors and some low-level felonies instead of bringing people to Central Booking. That change, included in this year’s state budget, is expected to spare thousands from jail time.

Numbers trend downward

The inmate population already has fallen over the past several years.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio came into office in 2014, more than 11,000 people were in city lockups. There were 7,571 inmates on Friday.

Bail reform is “just the beginning,” he predicted.

“If we want to truly build the fairest justice system possible, we’ll need parole reform at the state level,” he said in a statement to THE CITY, “and we’ll need to continue providing programs that will drive our jail population down even further.”

As for the planned new jails, it’s not their first size change.

The city in March announced that it would reduce the facilities’ heights by 30 to 45 feet, citing neighborhood concerns.

The jail in Manhattan currently is expected to be 450 feet high, Brooklyn 395 feet, Queens 270 feet and The Bronx 245 feet.

Community members gathered to voice varying degrees of opposition to the city's plan to expand the Brooklyn jail at a Community Board 2 meeting on April 11. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane
Community members gathered to voice varying degrees of opposition to the city’s plan to expand the Brooklyn jail at a Community Board 2 meeting on April 11. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

One critic of the Manhattan plan took a wait-and-see attitude toward the city’s promise to further shorten the structures.

“It has to be substantial and it has to be binding,” said Nancy Kong, a lower Manhattan resident.

Kong is among the activists who contend that the city locked out too many New Yorkers from initial meetings about the planned jails. Some sessions were invite-only only and reporters were barred.

In 2017, de Blasio announced his support for the Rikers shutdown, following years of pressure from inmate advocates. They contend the jails on the island by the East River are beyond reform and too far away from courts.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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