OP-ED: Making the case for community justice

The city is considering retrofitting the Marriage Bureau building on Centre Street into a jail, as part of Mayor de Blasio’s plan to close Riker’s Island.
Photo by Colin Mixson


It’s time to put an end to the ongoing misery of the Rikers Island jails.

Doing so will require wholesale justice reform and investments in community programs to divert people out of the system in the first place.

It will also require establishing a smaller system of modern facilities in the boroughs that treat detained people with dignity and better prepare them to reenter society.  This past week, the city released initial plans for an expanded jail adjacent to the criminal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, as well as plans for Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.

The decision to close Rikers was spurred, in part, by a report from an independent group that was tasked with studying New York City’s justice system.

I am a member of this group—sometimes called the Lippman Commission after its chair, former New York chief judge Jonathan Lippman—along with more than two dozen other New Yorkers from a wide range of backgrounds, including law enforcement, the judiciary, corrections, social services, and business.  Several have themselves spent time behind bars at Rikers.

We heard from prosecutors and public defenders, correction officers and union representatives, and health care providers and educators who work in city jails.  We heard from those who have been incarcerated, who described awful living conditions and a culture of brutality.  We heard about the unique challenges faced by women at Rikers, who are more likely to arrive in the system with underlying histories of trauma and abuse that are often exacerbated by the harshness of the jail environment.

We also took a hard look at the data about who is in city jails.  Nearly 80 percent are awaiting trial, and the rest are sentenced to less than one year or alleged to have violated the conditions of their parole, such as missing an appointment or failing a drug test.  The majority—75 percent—return directly to our neighborhoods when they exit jail.

It did not take long for our commission to conclude, unanimously, that the Rikers jails should be closed. The outdated layout and poor condition of the jails themselves is a danger to correction officers and detained people alike.  They lack well-designed spaces for programming to keep detained people busy when they are incarcerated—which is critical for safety—and for the care and services to help them succeed when they come home.

Rikers is also physically and psychologically isolated.

We heard again and again about the difficult, and sometimes harrowing, experiences of family who sought to visit Rikers, often spending most of a day traveling to and from the jails for just a few minutes with a loved one.  Yet these visits are key to maintaining the bonds that help detained people when they return home, especially mothers who are separated from their children.

Because most of the people on Rikers are awaiting trial, they regularly must be bused to and from courthouses in each of the five boroughs.  This process takes all day, even for court appearances that last only a few minutes.  It causes case delays and costs more than $30 million each year.

To address these deep-seated problems, our commission put forward a roadmap for a smaller and more effective justice system that would preserve safety while sending fewer people to jail.

We called for reforms at every stage of the process.  These include diverting people with mental health and substance abuse issues out of the justice system so they receive the care they need, reforming the bail system so that your wealth doesn’t determine whether you go to jail, and prioritizing alternatives to incarceration.  Also critical are gender-responsive interventions to dramatically reduce the number of women held in jail, who often have not benefitted from previous reforms to the same extent as men.

Over the past year and a half, as initial changes have taken hold, the jail population has declined by more than 1,000 people—and the city remains safer than ever.

Our commission also called for borough-based jails located next to the city’s criminal courthouses.  These facilities can be much better-designed than the obsolete jails on Rikers, creating a more humane environment for correction officers and detained people.  They can also provide benefits to the neighborhood—and the City’s proposal to build on the site directly south of the criminal courthouse would permit the return of a plot containing the current Manhattan Detention Center, which is to the north of the courthouse, to the community.

Moving forward, the design of these facilities must take place with community involvement and address the concerns of those who live and work nearby.

Together, we can create a community justice system worthy of our great city and – in  the process – become a beacon of fairness and justice for the rest of the country.

Ana L. Oliveira is president and CEO of The New York Women’s Foundation and a member of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform

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