Thursday, April 06, 2017


The real goal behind closing Rikers Island is to turnNew York’s justice system into one that focuses primarily on the welfare of the criminal instead of the community

By Seth Barron

New York Daily News
April 5, 2017

New York City’s plan to shut down Rikers Island is a bait-and-switch scheme. The report by former state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s blue-ribbon commission, tasked with figuring out what to do with the nation’s largest jail complex, concludes that the city should close Rikers and replace it with smaller, borough-based modern jails.

Before that can happen, however, the report says, the city must first reduce its jail population from its present level of about 10,000 to around 5,000.

Which is to say, the real purpose of the proposal isn’t to close Rikers: It’s to let 5,000 people out of jail by pursuing a decriminalization agenda that would end broken-windows policing as we know it.

Anchoring the commission’s report is a set of premises which, if put into practice, would radically change the way the city is policed, beginning with a focus on the negative effects of incarceration on arrestees.

“Spending time in jail is bad for you on a host of levels,” the report says, as though the downsides of going to jail were an inadvertent mistake of the judicial system. It’s the same kind of thinking that inspired the proposal of a notorious 2014 City Council resolution (not passed) calling on the NYPD to stop arresting subway fare-beaters because “in addition to being very disruptive, an arrest can cause significant stress” to turnstile jumpers.

One way to reduce such stress, then, is to stop viewing certain behavior as criminal. Thus, the commission recommends “reclassifying four charges as civil, and not criminal, matters: theft of services (using public transportation without paying the fare), low-level possession of marijuana in public view, prostitution and possession of ‘gravity knives.’ ” By raising the bar of what constitutes crime, we would lower the crime rate and thus have fewer people to punish.

The commission also suggests that the city “look to eliminate sentences of 30 days or fewer” in favor of vaguely defined “community-based alternatives.”

The notion that jail should rehabilitate as well as punish is commendable, but the Lippman report refuses to acknowledge that the unpleasantness of jail is meant also to deter crime. The threat of a five-day sentence for petty theft sounds pointless to liberal advocates, but not to a potential thief, for whom it can be a real restraint.

Further, the Lippman report traffics in pernicious myths about the role of racism in criminal justice, noting that “Blacks and Latinos comprise slightly more than half of our city’s overall population but are nearly 90% of our jail population.” As a result of this imbalance, according to the commission, the system must make “special efforts” to address the “overrepresentation” of these groups in the city’s jails.

But blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in the city’s jails primarily because they commit a disproportionate amount of the city’s crime. This tendency is borne out not just in arrest statistics, but in the descriptive reports of victims who register complaints with the police.

In fact, the overlap in racial composition between “proactive arrests” and “victim-driven arrests” for misdemeanors is almost exact. The data are uncontroversial and available on the NYPD website.

The commission’s report goes to a final extreme when it attempts to classify violent criminals themselves as a marginalized group.

The report laments that in a prior reform blueprint, “certain populations remained underserved, including women, young people, people who are LGBTQ, people with mental illnesses, people who suffer from an addiction and are convicted of property crimes, and people charged with serious or violent offenses.”

Women, youth, gay or trans people and the mentally ill are demographic categories that may or may not have been done wrong by society: in any case, they are who they are. But in what sense can convicted thieves or people charged with “serious or violent offenses” be considered a group that suffers discrimination?

In theory, closing Rikers is a reasonable idea. There is no reason why the city can’t have county jails adjacent to its borough courthouses, where family and lawyers would be able to visit more easily. New York City doesn’t need to have an insular penal colony holding most of its inmates, who are largely awaiting trial.

But if Mayor de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the city’s other leaders were really serious about closing Rikers Island because it is a violent, crumbling hellhole, they wouldn’t insist on a 10-year time frame contingent on lowering the city’s jail population by 5,000. They would begin building new jails and transferring the Rikers population off-island at once — public opinion be damned.

The reality is that the plan to close Rikers and build smaller jails is politically unrealistic. But the pretense of that goal is a useful screen behind which to return New York to a justice system that focuses primarily on the welfare of the criminal instead of the community.

1 comment:

bob walsh said...

There is a significant number of people would close down 95% of the jail and prison bed space in the country if they could get away with it. Being a good liberal just means you have to feel good or bad about things as appropriate. You never have to actually FIX anything.