Why New York's Ability to Close Rikers Has Become Realistic --Council Speaker

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Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito

Testimony of Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker, New York City Council on the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice. December 4, 2017.

Thank you to Chair Crowley for holding this hearing, and for her leadership on all the many issues facing our city jails.

When I started my tenure as Speaker, the idea of closing all the jail facilities on Rikers Island was considered outlandish. Unrealistic. Naïve. Impractical.

Look how far we have come.

In my State of the City Speech in 2016, I called for the creation of an independent commission to address whether closing all jail facilities on Rikers Island was realistic. Whether it was practical. Whether the dream of closing Rikers could become a reality. And earlier this year, that commission, made up of some of the most experienced and knowledgeable people in this City, issued a unanimous decision: this city should close all jail facilities on Rikers, that it could do so within 10 years, that doing so would actually save the City money in the long term, and that it was the right thing to do.

Now, thanks to the agreement of this Mayor and his Administration, it is the policy of the City of New York to close all jail facilities on Rikers Island. Since the mayor announced this policy, we at the City Council have secured the support of the Council Members who have jails in their districts in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. We have secured the support of virtually all of the Queens delegation to re-open the Queens House of Detention, and numerous other Council Members have supported closing Rikers, including all of the current candidates for Speaker.

Here at the City Council, we have already fulfilled many of the recommendations of Chief Judge Lippman’s independent commission. We have funded expanded supervised release programs to cover a younger, higher-risk population. We have funded an initiative to help judges more accurately assess defendants’ financial ability to pay bail, and set more appropriate bail amounts.

We passed a package of 5 bills that comprehensively overhaul bail payment processes, to ensure that those who can pay bail are not needlessly detained longer than necessary. We funded 3 diversion programs to keep cases out of the criminal court system altogether, including programs aimed at addressing drug issues in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and a new neighborhood court in the Bronx that will empower communities to choose the appropriate remedy for misdemeanor cases, without the possibility of jail or a criminal record.

And of course, the Council’s citywide bail fund is operational, and will be bailing out more than 1,000 people every year.

Many of these initiatives were reflected in the Mayor’s “roadmap” for closing Rikers, released about 5 months ago. That “roadmap” is part of what we are here to discuss today.

There are dozens of strategies in that plan, including a number of initiatives that are supposed to have already been implemented, including developing more alternatives-to-incarceration programming to replace shorter jail sentences and expanding the currently available supervised release programs. However, there has been little publicly available information about progress in these and other steps in closing Rikers. We know the Mayor has appointed a number of very impressive individuals to his task force, and has started to solicit consultants to develop plans for building new jail facilities outside Rikers Island. I am interested in learning more about what progress this task force has made, details regarding the solicitation for consultants, and the Administration’s progress in implementing the dozens of strategies contained in his “roadmap.”

None of us are under the illusion that closing Rikers Island will be either quick or easy. However long it takes, we have a lot of work ahead of us, and it is crucial that we continue to work to get it closed as soon as possible. It is also crucial that this Council, and the public, be made regularly aware of our progress in this crucial issue.

I look forward to learning more about that progress today, I thank the members of the Administration who are here today for their testimony, and I thank the chair and all the staff who helped put this hearing together.

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