Department of Corrections Honcho blames courts for rising Rikers population

July 21, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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The Department of Correction Commissioner, Louis Molina, has attributed the increasing Inmate population at Rikers Island to the state court system’s procedural delays. His claims come amid mounting criticisms and as the city’s 2027 deadline to halve Rikers’ population looms large.

Rikers, New York City’s notorious jail complex, currently houses around 6,000 detainees daily. Molina, however, expects this figure to reach an average of 7,000 by next summer. These numbers present a daunting disparity, given that the four borough-based jails set to replace Rikers Island by 2027 will only be able to accommodate a combined total of 3,300 detainees.

At an oversight meeting of the Board of Correction, Molina stated, “The court process is what’s causing [the delay in outflow].” He further highlighted that “the outflow of persons that are in temporary detention is not happening at a pace that’s exceeding the inflow of bodies coming in.” Essentially, detainees are not exiting the system as rapidly as they are entering it.

To illustrate his point, Molina cited around 1,240 individuals who have been detained pretrial at Rikers Island for over a year. This equates to the longest sentence a convicted New Yorker can serve on the island.

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When contacted by Jacob Kaye of the Queens Eagle, Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, disagreed with Molina’s stance. Chalfen argued that the court system was ready to commence trials whenever both prosecution and defense were prepared. Delays, he suggested, were due to either the prosecution or the defense asserting unreadiness to start the trial.

Marcia Bryson, a mother who witnessed her son held pretrial on Rikers Island for five years, underscores the toll that prolonged detention periods can take on all involved parties. She explained to the Queens Eagle that she spent around $100,000 on her son and his case since his arrest in 2018, causing her to accumulate debt and defer her retirement.

Despite the urgency of the situation, there are several population reduction tools currently being underutilized by the city. Among these are the Local Conditional Release Commission, a board established in 2020 but has yet to hear a single case, and the 6-A Early Release program. The potential of these mechanisms is promising: the former could potentially grant the release of around 100 detainees serving short sentences per year.

Juanita Holmes, the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Probation, expects the Local Conditional Release Commission to be fully operational by September. This is a hopeful step, though advocates insist that the city is not fully utilizing the early release programs.

Adding to the concern is a task force created by Mayor Eric Adams to address Rikers Island’s myriad issues. The group has not yet issued any report since its formation. Meanwhile, Rikers’ population, after several years of decline, began to increase again in 2020, a trend that persists.

This population surge at Rikers and the concurrent criticisms suggest that the challenges surrounding the island’s planned closure are far from resolution. Whether the root of the problem lies within the courts, as Molina argues, or elsewhere, the city’s capacity to manage its detainee population effectively and humanely remains in question.


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