Judge Lippman: Closing Rikers is easy — address mental illness

September 15, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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If Mayor Eric Adams wants a new plan to close Rikers Island, he wasn’t going to get one from former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who was talking about the issue on Wednesday night at Fordham Law School.

Instead, though, Lippman offered a simple solution to address mental health.

“How do we close Rikers Island? What is the secret potion to make it happen? It’s not so secret and it’s not so difficult — Mental illness is the key,” former Chief Judge Lippman said. “More than half of the people at Rikers have been diagnosed with mental illness. One in five have a serious mental illness…It is clear we have to shift our approach to mental health if we are to succeed at closing Rikers Island.”

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In the ever-evolving backdrop of New York City’s criminal justice landscape, a transformative commitment has been made: the definitive closure of Rikers Island by 2027. To delve deeper into the intricacies and challenges of this pledge, Fordham Law’s Access to Justice Initiative and the National Center for Access to Justice recently convened a significant symposium on Wednesday night.

The speakers included not only the former chief judge, but also Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Brooklyn’s Administrative Judge of the Supreme Court, Criminal Term, Justice Matthew D’Emic. 

Guiding the discourse was former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who had previously chaired the Rikers Commission in 2017. Lippman’s opening remarks were nothing short of riveting. He painted a poignant and often bleak portrayal of Rikers Island, filled with harrowing narratives and uncompromising statistics — from escalating inmate deaths to the staggering cost-per-inmate.

More than just illuminating the dark corners of Rikers, Lippman pinpointed the city’s mental health crisis as central to the dialogue. With an astounding portion of Rikers’ inhabitants diagnosed with a mental disorder, the conversation around the city’s mental health strategy and its intersection with incarceration becomes paramount. 

“Jail should never be the default for those grappling with mental health challenges,” Lippman contended, spotlighting the urgent need to prioritize supportive housing and comprehensive mental health care both in and out of institutional settings.

Justice Matthew D’Emic of Brooklyn Supreme Court underscores the pressing need to bridge the gap between mental health support and the criminal justice system.

Justice Matthew D’Emic of the Brooklyn Supreme Court provided further depth to this perspective. He accentuated that by the time an individual with mental health challenges stands before a judge, systemic failure is already evident. D’Emic’s elucidations shed light on the often-overlooked elements of the system: the delicate balance of protecting the public while also ensuring that those with treatable conditions receive proper care. 

By recounting real-life stories of young men caught in the whirlwind of mental health challenges and incarceration, Justice D’Emic emphasized the dire need to bridge the chasm between mental health support and the justice system.

“The options that are open for me are often to arrest or release the person into the streets,” D’Emic said. “Arrest is usually the last thing that I want to do, but if someone is dangerous I cannot just release them out into the streets, and the hospitals can’t always keep them. Give me a different option.”

A contentious issue that arose was the potential introduction of a receivership for Rikers. While the idea might seem novel, it was met with apprehension. Justices D’Emic and Lippman, though distinct in their roles, both recognized the pressing urgency for positive transformation, yet both were cautiously circumspect of any measures that might be a step backwards before achieving progress.

The discussions didn’t merely dwell on the problems but also explored proactive solutions. Concepts such as deploying non-police entities for mental health crisis response, initiating deflection strategies to avert potential arrests, and emphasizing community-based initiatives were highlighted. The consensus underscored the need for a proactive rather than reactive stance.

Emerging from the multifaceted dialogue of the evening was an unequivocal motif: New York City is at a pivotal juncture. Addressing mental health isn’t just an exigency of public health; it’s integral to the metamorphosis of its entire criminal justice framework. 

One of the main goals that is necessary in closing Rikers Island is getting the daily population, which is now roughly 6,000 people per day, down to approximately 3,000–4,000 per day. The participants in Wednesday’s panel made it clear that while there are many ways to reduce the number of people locked up on Rikers Island, addressing mental illness, and coming up with a better way, could potentially be the biggest difference maker.


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