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Former Chief Judge Lippman to de Blasio: Close Rikers Island

July 1, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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While New York City politicians discussed the budget, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio urging him not to give up on the effort to close Rikers Island.

Specifically, Lippman called on de Blasio to include investment into decarceration programs and supportive housing and for a reduction in the Department of Correction’s spending. He explained that this could save money in the budget by diverting people from prison, which costs an estimated $400,000 per person per year.

“Continue your administration’s historic reduction of the use of jail by bolstering programs that provide supportive and transitional housing, including the programs put into place to help stem the rapid spread of COVID-19 inside City jails,” former Chief Judge Lippman wrote. “These programs can greatly increase stability for people, boosting public safety, compounding monetary savings, and advancing racial justice.

“It is also of great importance that your administration meet all commitments made in the October 2019 Points of Agreement relating to the City Council’s vote to close Rikers.”

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Lippman said that the high costs of detaining inmates is significantly higher in New York City than most other places, and that the city should focus on reducing the costs of the DOC.

“To help finance crucial alternative-to-incarceration programs, your administration can reduce the DOC budget along the lines described in the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration blueprint, as well as by curtailing overtime spending and the jail riot squads that the Nunez monitor has found to exacerbate violence,” Lippman said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the budget, and dealing with the coronavirus within the prisons has shifted attention away from the decarceration goal. Lippman reminded de Blasio to keep his eye on the planning process for the outer-borough facilities.

“Immediately resume the planning and procurement processes for the borough-based jails, including the demolition of the Brooklyn Detention Complex, and restart the work of the project management consulting team,” Lippman said. “This planning process is imperative, will not require major capital expenditures this year, and in the long run, will lead to massive budgetary savings. Most importantly, every month’s delay subjects even more New Yorkers, predominantly Black and Brown New Yorkers, to Rikers, which is wholly unacceptable.”

Former Chief Judge Lippman heads the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration, which is a group of civic leaders, professors, judges, law enforcement and other advocacy groups.

The group was initially convened by then City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. In April 2017, the Commission recommended closing Rikers Island by reducing the population and using five smaller outer-borough jails instead.

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