New York City

Closing Rikers Island: Experts convene to chart path to closure and reform

April 14, 2023 Robert Abruzzese
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CITYWIDE — A panel of criminal justice experts will gather on Thursday, April 20, to discuss the ongoing crisis at Rikers Island and chart a path toward its closure and the implementation of necessary policy changes.

The event, titled “The Path Ahead for Rikers: Crisis, Challenges, and the Path to Closure,” will take place at the New York City Bar Association from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

The panel will delve into the current conditions at Rikers, address the immediate crisis, explore the possibility of appointing a federal receiver over the Department of Corrections, and discuss the steps needed to ensure safety for those incarcerated in New York City’s jails.

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Despite the city’s commitment to the Close Rikers Plan, the jail remains mired in crisis, with people continuing to die in custody and the conditions for closure unattainable without significant policy changes.

The panel includes Comptroller Brad Lander, Wesley Caines of the Bronx Defenders, Andre Ward from the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy, Jeremy Travis of Arnold Ventures, and Sarena Townsend of TMU Law. Vincent Southerland, a professor at NYU School of Law, will moderate the discussion.

Mayor Eric Adams’ position on closing Rikers Island remains unclear. Although the City Hall plans to close the facility is officially moving ahead, Adams has questioned the plan due to a rise in the number of detainees. Adams has also pushed for state lawmakers to make it easier for prosecutors to incarcerate people.

The plan to close Rikers requires the city’s jail population to drop to 3,300, but Adams has stated he has no intention of reaching that benchmark. Instead, the mayor is calling for a “Plan B” as the headcount is expected to reach 7,000 next year. Adams has also called for changes to bail reform to make it easier for judges to keep people in jail while waiting for their criminal cases, a move criticized by criminal justice reformers who advocate for more robust mental health, drug treatment, housing, and job training programs.

The plan to shutdown Rikers is in response to the need to address the inhumane conditions and overcrowding, as well as the difficulties detainees face traveling to court appearances and the challenges their families face when visiting. Shutting down Rikers and replacing it with smaller, borough-based jails is expected to save the city around $2 billion annually in operating costs and provide better facilities with more programming space.On the other hand, the position for keeping Rikers Island open is based on concerns about the potential negative impacts of new jail construction on local communities, and the need for better control over the rising jail population.

Some community groups and local leaders argue that the new jail facilities may not be adequate to address the systemic failures of the city’s jail system, and they propose revamping the existing facilities on Rikers Island instead.

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