Rikers Island

Opinion: Is it possible to get the effort to close Rikers Island back on track?

The troubled jail’s closure has been cast adrift in a sea of half truths, bad ideas and polarized debate.

Rikers Island

Rikers Island DougSchneiderPhoto / Getty Images

My first visit to Rikers Island took place in 1992, when I participated in a small, day-long tour. It was an eye-opening experience.  

The daily jail population had only recently peaked, with more than 21,000 people behind bars. In addition to a decaying infrastructure of crumbling buildings, back then Rikers also featured a series of temporary tents which were needed to house the overwhelming flow of humanity. The horrors of the jails, then and now, have been well-documented by others, so I won’t rehash them here. Suffice to say that very little about the place gave the feeling of safety, let alone rehabilitation. I came away thinking that, whenever possible given the dictates of public safety, we should avoid sending New Yorkers to Rikers.

I would spend the next 25 years of my life trying to reduce the use of incarceration, particularly as a sentence for non-violent crime. As the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation (now called the Center for Justice Innovation), I helped to create a broad range of programs that provided judges with meaningful alternatives to incarceration. And because the best jail reduction strategy is to reduce crime – after all, the fewer people committing crimes, the fewer jail beds you need  – we also launched a number of community projects, including New York’s first Cure Violence program, that sought to make neighborhoods safer. 

For a generation, the jail population in New York City went down almost every year.  In 2016, former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, at the urging of the City Council, created a blue-ribbon commission to study the future of Rikers. Lippman asked me to help organize the commission and draft its final report, which called for closing Rikers Island and opening smaller jails in each borough. The commission’s report added rocket fuel to a well-organized advocacy campaign sparked by formerly incarcerated activists. Mayor Bill de Blasio ended up endorsing the idea of closing Rikers Island, which was subsequently ratified by the City Council. With support across a broad political spectrum, it seemed the justice system was poised to capitalize on decades of successful incremental reform to achieve something quite significant indeed.

But that was a long time ago. Since then, we have been cast adrift in a sea of half truths, bad ideas and polarized debate. 

It started on the left. First, a bunch of radical activists claimed we needed neither police nor jails. While their arguments didn’t have much of an impact in the world of policy, they did suck up an enormous amount of oxygen in the discourse. 

Next, in 2019, the state Legislature passed a bail reform law that aimed to reduce the number of defendants held in custody while their cases were pending. In classic Albany fashion, the law was instituted without a single public hearing. Perhaps because operationalizing the law was an afterthought, criminal justice agencies have struggled to absorb this shock to the system (not to mention discovery reform and other changes passed around the same time). Significantly, unlike other states, New York judges are constrained from considering whether a defendant is a threat to the public when making pretrial decisions, which makes it difficult to refute claims that the system is not particularly focused on protecting public safety during the pretrial period.

The proponents of bail reform and prison abolition are motivated, in part, by the idea that the justice system is a racist institution committed to perpetuating mass incarceration. But the numbers suggest that, in New York City, 9 out of every 10 defendants are released by the court while their cases are pending (this is up from roughly 7 out of 10 before bail reform).  Clearance rates – the percentage of crimes that result in arrest – are shockingly low. And data from the New York City Criminal Justice Agency suggests that even when arrests are made, the chances of being sentenced to jail or prison are much lower than you might think. For example, about half of those charged with a violent felony end up having their cases dismissed.  

There are important caveats to all of these numbers, but the notion that our justice system is a case study in punitive excess, where vulnerable New Yorkers are placed on a fast-moving conveyor belt that inexorably leads to Rikers Island and prison, is hard to sustain. 

Of course, left-wing activists are not the only ones who play fast and loose with the facts. On the right, the sky is perpetually falling. Every crime on the subways is heralded as a harbinger of the fall of civilization and as proof that more people ought to be locked up. But the available data suggest that, after a concerning post-COVID spike, serious crime went down in 2023. By historical standards, New York City is a safe city – much safer than it was when I first toured Rikers in 1992, even with many fewer people in jail. 

Unfortunately, the left-right propaganda war has distracted attention from the unglamorous task of closing Rikers Island, which requires the dull, pragmatic work of building a more efficient and effective justice system so that the numbers jailed can be safely reduced and smaller, purpose-built borough-based jails can be opened. Without a concerted push from external forces, the Adams administration has not shown much enthusiasm for the job. There is basically zero chance that the city can meet the initial target date of 2027 for shuttering the facility. And as the months go by, the estimated cost of building new jails continues to skyrocket – the tally now stands at an eye-watering $15 billion. At some point, the whole enterprise will become cost prohibitive.

How can we get the effort to close Rikers back on track? Is there any chance at all of returning to that halcyon moment when there was broad agreement that shuttering the jail complex was a noble goal?

A good place to start would be a commitment to more honesty by actors on both sides of the political debate. The lock-‘em-up crowd can begin by admitting what is obvious to anyone who has ever visited Rikers: It is unacceptable for a city of New York’s wealth and historic commitment to the disadvantaged to operate jails like this. And progressives should acknowledge that they may have over-swung in some important respects and that the last few years of legislatively imposed criminal justice reform have been something less than an unalloyed triumph. We can all take a page from Mark Twain’s playbook: “When in doubt, tell the truth,” Twain advised. “It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”