Rikers Commission 2.0: A new chapter in the fight to close the jail complex

October 30, 2023 Robert Abruzzese
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The New York City Council is reinvigorating efforts to close the controversial Rikers Island jail complex. Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and Councilmember Carlina Rivera announced the reappointment of the Independent Rikers Commission, led by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

The revitalized commission aims to strengthen plans for the closure of Rikers and its replacement with borough-based jails by 2027, as mandated by law.

“Rikers has to close as soon as possible,” said Jonathan Lippman, chair of the Commission and former chief judge of the State of New York. “The jails there hurt public safety and endanger the lives of everyone inside their walls. They are a stain on the soul of our city.”

Rivera stressed the urgency of the situation, saying, “Reducing the population is urgent, and we need as many voices as possible at the table to reiterate how important alternatives to incarceration, reentry services, and streamlined case processing are to our timeline.”

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The renewed push for closure comes as grim statistics continue to paint a dire picture of the conditions on Rikers Island. More than half of the incarcerated population there have a mental illness, and the average wait time for a trial is 260 days. Moreover, nine incarcerated individuals have died this year.

These issues, according to experts, exacerbate public safety concerns and compromise human rights. The borough-based jails slated to replace Rikers aim to offer a more humane and effective system. However, construction delays and insufficient treatment beds are among the logistical challenges facing the Commission as it races against the legal deadline.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams also lent his support, noting how the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the criminal justice system, including the timeline for Rikers’ closure.

“Our administration’s commitment to the success of our jail system is unwavering, but we also have taken stock of the reality of how this once-in-a-generation pandemic impacted the original timeline for the implementation of the borough-based jail plan,” Mayor Eric Adams said. “The answer is not to ignore reality or compromise public safety, but to work together to find solutions.”

Judge Lippman is a key figure in the renewed efforts to close Rikers Island. He brings not only judicial expertise but also a history of advocating for criminal justice reform.

“We have a generational opportunity to do far better, and the outlines of how to do so already exist,” Lippman said. His leadership aims to guide the commission in addressing pressing issues like mental health care for the incarcerated, delays in case processing, and logistical challenges related to the construction of new facilities.

With a sense of urgency, Lippman stressed the moral imperative of the commission’s work. Under his guidance, the commission will work to update and enhance the blueprint for closing Rikers, taking into account new challenges that have emerged in the post-COVID era.

“Steps like safe, smart reductions in the jail population, focused on people with serious mental illness and actually giving people speedy trials,” the former chief judge said. “Accelerated construction of borough-based jails and secure hospital beds. A new vision for corrections. At the same time, the goal of Commission 2.0 is to take a renewed and realistic look at current on-the-ground conditions and find a safe, clear path to swiftly close Rikers.”

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