How New York City Can Close Rikers and Continue to Reduce Jail Population

(A woman walks by a sign at the entrance to Rikers Island on March 31, 2017 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that he agrees with the fundamentals of a plan to close the jail complex on Rikers Island within 10 years. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A new report by CCI provides leaders with a roadmap on how to close the notorious jail by 2027 and support impacted communities.

In October 2019, New York City leaders vowed to shutter Rikers Island Jail by 2027, a decision Mayor Bill de Blasio said “will make our city stronger and more just.”

Rikers, the city’s most populated jail, sits on a 400-acre island on the East River and has been plagued by years of crumbling infrastructure, horrid conditions, and violence.

A new report released Monday provides city leaders with a roadmap on how they can effectively close the notorious jail while continuing a years-long decline of the city’s jail population. It also addresses racial inequities in the criminal justice system.

The report, published by the Center for Court Innovation and written by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, notes that by closing Rikers, New York City “will be building on decades of successful reforms that have already driven down both crime and incarceration.”

The city can do so by focusing on “ending case delays, reducing bail, reforming parole, investing in mental health and treatment, and prioritizing proven alternative approaches.”

The most effective of those approaches, the report notes, is utilizing New York’s bail reform laws to shrink the number of people held pretrial. The laws state that no one can be held pretrial unless they’re deemed a flight risk. However, the COVID-19 pandemic led some judges to resort to old bail practices.

In the second half of 2020, bail settings rose in New York and more judges were choosing to assign bail to men and women who by state law should have been released. That change is in contrast to data cited by the report showing these stricter settings are unnecessary. Since bail reform laws were enacted, 83 percent of people attended every court date, including 88 percent of those charged with a violent felony.

The report notes that as of June 1, the city’s jail population was more than 5,700 people. Many of those New Yorkers were being held pretrial, according to the report, because they were either unable to afford bail or were remanded to jail by a judge. Only a small percentage of those, the report notes, could afford to pay their bail at the time of arraignment to avoid staying in jail.

“Countering the conventional wisdom, research indicates that jailing people pretrial actually increases their likelihood of future arrest compared to similar individuals who are released,” according to the report.

By improving pretrial decisions, the report notes, the city’s jail population could decrease by as many as 1,100 people on a given day.

That reduction would largely impact communities of color, which predominately make up the population of the city’s jails. Black New Yorkers represent about 60 percent of the jail population, according to the report, while only comprising 24 percent of the city’s total population. Data show that judges were, on average, nearly 50 percent more likely to set bail for a Black person charged with a crime when compared to a white person facing the same charges, the report notes.

“System players must address mounting racially inequitable outcomes, regardless of whether or not there is measurable overt bias in decision making,” the report notes. “The city should also invest in community needs for predominately Black and Brown neighborhoods that are disproportionately impacted by both crime and incarceration.”

You can read more of the report’s roadmap on closing Rikers while reducing the New York City jail population here, including its recommendations on improving bail, pretrial detentions, and racial justice.