Q&A with former Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman on the future of Rikers

Two of the biggest players in the report on closing Rikers Island, former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Greg Berman of the Center for Court Innovation, joined the Slant podcast on April 17 to talk about becoming “radicalized” on shutting down the island’s jails and more.

C&S: You chaired New York City commission that recommended closing the jails on Rikers Island. How do you expect to move so many people off Rikers? And how do you deal with the people who don’t want a new jail in their neighborhood?

JL: In the last 20 years, the population has more than been cut in half. It used to be 22,000 or 23,000. Now it’s 9,700. We have every belief, with crime continuing to go down, that we can continue to reduce the population. And that makes viable all these other efficiencies, going to a locally based system that is cost-effective with less inmates and less staff. We think it’s very doable and we think we can get around the NIMBY effect. We’re not putting 20 jails in people’s bedrooms. We’re putting one jail in each county, downtown, connected to the courthouse. … In three of the counties we already have a footprint, downtown, to put it. We think this is thoughtful, realistic, and we understand – we’re not operating in a vacuum – that the politics is very difficult. And that’s why we didn’t say let’s put 20 jails of 300 people each. Not going to work. We think this is very doable.

C&S: Who is the culprit in the current situation at Rikers Island? Is it the courts for the huge case backlog?

JL: I think the days of the criminal justice system pointing fingers at each other and saying, “You’re responsible, you’re responsible” are over. Whether it’s the courts themselves, the DA, the prosecutor, city corrections, all of the different players – the defense bar – we all have to work together to get this done. And if we’re going to go and say, “It was the DA, it was this one, it was that one,” then we’re not going to get it. It’s inconceivable – a year ago, two years ago, 10 years ago – that three of the five district attorneys in New York would come out for all the criminal justice reform that we put into this report.

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C&S: How do you get this done? How do you move the system faster, getting people through trials and out of jail faster?

GB: I think the key is that we’re not in the business of naming culprits, we’re in the business of finding allies. And the remarkable thing is that we’re at a unique window of opportunity right now in New York City. People understand the horrific damage that Rikers Island has done for generations. You can’t go to Rikers Island and not be radicalized at some point. And not come away feeling like we can do better than this. It is inhumane. It is not effective. And that is not anymore a minority opinion, in any sense of the word minority… I think we seize that window of opportunity not by fingerpointing, but by bringing everybody to the table and saying “how can we do better?”

RELATED: Will anything ever change at Rikers?

C&S: What are the benchmarks that you’re trying to hit to make sure this plan to close Rikers stays on track and that the next mayor, next City Council speaker, you can hold their feet to the fire?

JL: We’re going to be getting very specific in terms of benchmarks, but the two key areas: one, to start driving the population down. By doing things like diversion programs, speedy trial, bail—all the things that matter in terms of criminal justice. This isn’t just make-believe. This is a science. We know how to drive the population down. And we can do it. And those benchmarks, as (the jail population) goes down, it makes the plan realistic. But the other side is the sitings. We know, in Manhattan, in Brooklyn and in Queens we have a footprint. We have existing jails that need to be torn down and build new jails on that same footprint…. This isn’t a question of putting a report out and letting it sit on a shelf. We’re going to be day-in, day-out. We’re building a structure around this commission going forward to continue. Those are the benchmarks, the sitings and the jail population.

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