Invoking the namesake of Samuel Gompers High School where she gave her State of the City address Thursday, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito described the turn-of-the-20th-century organized labor leader as an “iconic pioneer” whose legacy lives on in the current fight to raise the minimum wage and mandate paid family leave – as well as the pursuit of a more equitable criminal justice system.
In her address, Mark-Viverito made a series of police and correction proposals meant to ultimately decrease the Rikers Island detention centers’ populations to the point that closing them would be feasible. Like last year, her speech highlighted the story of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teen who spent years at Rikers Island awaiting a trial on charges that were eventually dropped, and who later took his own life.
“Rikers Island has come to represent our worst tendencies and our biggest failures,” Mark-Viverito said. “It is where Kalief suffered and his spirit broke down. For too long, Rikers has not stood for more justice, but for revenge. We must explore how we can get the population on Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”
The speaker said she would tap former state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to lead a commission to create a blueprint for criminal justice reform, with the end goal of eliminating the need for Rikers. The group would recommend ways to move youth and those with mental health problems off Rikers, increase the number of community courts, expand borough-based jail facilities, reduce pretrial incarceration rates and find alternatives to incarceration. Mark-Viverito stressed that of the roughly 70,000 admitted to city jails each year, only 16 percent wind up sentenced to prison. She also said the $25 million the city spends transporting inmates to court suggests the current model is inefficient.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office said the average daily city jail population has dropped 10 percent since fiscal year 2014, and the mayor has announced plans expected to further reduce the city’s jail population by 2,000.
“Safely reducing the Rikers population is one of our top priorities, which is why we’ve launched numerous programs to achieve this goal – including bail and summons reform, case processing, gun fast-tracking, and our important work with Speaker Mark-Viverito on the bail fund,” de Blasio spokeswoman Monica Klein said in a statement. “Wherever we house our jails, we will continue reducing our jail population – as a matter of fairness, justice, and safety. We look forward to working closely with this new Commission on these essential issues.”
Beyond the commission, Mark-Viverito called for creating an inspector general to oversee the city Department of Correction, for Albany to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and for the creation of a central diversion hub that offers an array of classes, as well as drug treatment, job search and housing resources for those recently incarcerated. When asked to comment, the de Blasio administration pointed out that the city’s Department of Investigation has an inspector general dedicated to the Department of Correction and staff members who focus on Rikers.
More broadly, the speaker said she would like the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to create a crime victims service coordinator who would manage assistance across several city agencies and wants the administration to draft multi-agency plans to provide targeted social services in high-crime areas.
Mark-Viverito singled out a package of bills called the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which would encourage police to give civil tickets for nonviolent, low-level offenses like drinking in public, rather than steering them through the criminal court system. Klein, the de Blasio spokeswoman, said the administration looked forward to discussing the details of the Criminal Justice Reform Act with the council. Still, the speaker said the city is poised to adopt this approach, therefore it only makes sense to establish a system for clearing some of the 1.5 million active summons warrants for minor, low-level offenses when the person in question has otherwise stayed out of trouble.
“The CJRA will ensure there are far more proportionate enforcement and penalties for low-level offenses because giving someone a permanent criminal record for being in a park after dark is simply not fair or proportionate,” Mark-Viverito said. “And spending the night in jail on a 10-year-old warrant for being in the park after dark is not just unfair, it’s senseless. And this is exactly what is happening every day in our city thanks to the over 1.5 million active summons warrants on our books. This makes even less sense now since under the Criminal Justice Reform Act that person would likely receive only a civil penalty for the violation with no possibility of a warrant, no possibility of a criminal record and no possibility of spending a night in jail. That is why our next step must be to reform our warrant system.”
Klein said de Blasio was also focused on reducing the number of outstanding warrants.
“We’ve taken clear steps to increase summons court appearances and drive down summons warrants,” Klein said in a statement. “This includes creating flexible appearance dates, simplifying the summons form, and launching a new reminder system. We look forward to discussing the speaker’s proposal with members of the criminal justice community.”
Throughout the speech, Mark-Viverito referred to a Samuel Gompers quote, saying, “We need more justice, less revenge.” Her use of the word “revenge” initially evoked tepid claps. But by the end of the speech, when Mark-Viverito thanked Browder’s mother for attending, the audience rose to salute Browder and delivered one of the loudest ovations of the day.