Rikers Island: A Jail Population of People Presumed Innocent

people presumed innocent of a crime make up a record high proportion of the population at Rikers
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A fluctuating jail population that is now far too large to close Rikers Island, longer lengths of stay, a predominance of people held before trial, and a remarkable drop in incarceration due to parole violations are among the findings from a new report released by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College for Criminal Justice.

Read the Full Report: https://datacollaborativeforjustice.org/work/jail-populations/decarcerat...

The report explores major and sometimes contradictory changes in New York City’s use of jail in the bail reform era. Among other findings, it reveals that people presumed innocent of a crime make up a record high proportion of the population at Rikers, as high as 84% in November 2022. That’s more than at any other time over the past three decades. These people are held before trial for reasons including unaffordable bail, being remanded to jail, and longer periods of pretrial detention. The pretrial population stood at 64% in April 2019 when the state’s bail reform law first passed. It then dropped to 56% by mid-March 2020 after early implementation, before rising sharply to 84% in November 2022.

DCJ’s report also looks at potential drivers that may have contributed to the city’s observed swings in the use of jail—identifying three reasons for jail reductions (including bail reform and parole reforms under the Less is More Act) and four reasons for countervailing jail increases (including a reversion towards more bail-setting since the spring of 2020 and rising lengths of stay once people are admitted to jail).

“The many shifts in the jail population since bail reform became law is something no one predicted,” said Michael Rempel, Director, Data Collaborative for Justice. “It’s impossible to fully grasp what happened without holding multiple thoughts in our heads at once. On one hand, both bail reform and the Less is More Act contributed to clear reductions in the numbers of New Yorkers experiencing the city’s jails. On the other hand, since the spring of 2020, the jail population has been rising for many reasons—including an uptick in bail-setting in cases still eligible for it and delays in case resolution leaving people languishing in pretrial detention for longer periods of time.”

On April 1, 2019, New York State legislators passed a new bail law intended to limit pretrial detention and rectify disparities based on wealth and race in who can pay their way out of jail. Put into effect statewide on January 1, 2020, bail reform carried the added promise of shrinking New York City’s jail population sufficiently to shutter the Rikers Island jail complex. Yet, this research shows that three and a half years later, the city is not on track to meet these goals.

“What has happened with the New York City jail population in recent years illustrates the impact of policy on outcomes of people at the front end of the criminal legal system,” said Olive Lu, Associate Director of Research, Data Collaborative for Justice. “Combined with our ongoing work looking at the impact of bail reform on pretrial decision-making throughout New York State, this report sheds further light on the areas where policy implementation is working and those where gaps still exist.”

When bail reform passed, the city’s jails held just over 7,800 people per day, nearly 5,000 of whom were incarcerated before trial. After a steep decline from April 2019 to the end of April 2020—when the city’s jail population reached a low watermark of 3,809—the population has since been increasing. The population currently stands at over 5,900 people held per day, while closing Rikers hinges on lowering the daily population of 3,300 or less by August 31, 2027. Paradoxically, a steep rise in the pretrial portion of the jail population—the portion bail reform was to have reduced—has largely driven the overall jail increase since the spring of 2020.

The Data Collaborative reports examines how this could have happened.

Some Key Findings:

  (1) As intended, bail reform contributed to sizable reductions in annual jail admissions. Since implementation, admissions declined by over half from almost 35,000 in 2019 to less than 16,000 in 2020. Admissions began climbing again in 2021, and in 2022 were on pace to reach nearly 20,000 for the year. This would still represent a 42% reduction when compared to 2019.

(2) People admitted to jail faced more serious charges than in the past and were held for considerably longer than prior to reform. From the years before, to after reform, people charged with violent felonies grew from 34% to 59% of pretrial admissions. Additionally, 59% of people held pretrial on April 1, 2019 were charged with a violent felony, a figure that climbed to 78% on November 1, 2022. In the three years from 2018 to 2021, average jail stays grew by 40% (73 to 102 days).

(3) Unexpectedly, the total pretrial jail population is essentially identical since bail reform was implemented. The population held before trial on April 1, 2019 was 4,996. On November 1, 2022, it stood at 5,003.

(4) Admissions due to parole violations plummeted—especially after the signing of the Less is More Act on September 17, 2021. In just a little more than a year’s time, people in the daily jail population on parole violations declined by over 80% (from over 1,000 to 200).

(5) Of those held in jail on November 1, 2022, 51% had received mental health services while incarcerated, up from 46% on April 1, 2019.

(6) Over a longer expanse of time, the 1995-to-2021 period saw annual jail admissions involving Black people peak at 57% in 2000, decline to 52% by 2017, and rise again to 57% in 2021. In early 2023, DCJ plans to publish a deep-dive concerning racial disparities in NYC jail admissions.

The full report is available on the Data Collaborative for Justice’s website: https://datacollaborativeforjustice.org/work/jail-populations/decarcerat...

The Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ) leads critical research about frequent interactions between community members and the criminal legal system and aims to ensure that communities, and the governments that serve them, have the necessary information to develop and implement evidence-based policies, practices, and programs. DCJ’s work has informed policy reforms, facilitated partnerships between researchers and government agencies across the country, spurred new scholarly research on lower-level enforcement, and been cited extensively in the press. More information about the Data Collaborative for Justice’s work is available at: www. datacollaborativeforjustice. org.

About John Jay College of Criminal Justice:  
An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York is a Hispanic Serving Institution and Minority Serving Institution offering a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. John Jay is home to faculty and research centers at the forefront of advancing criminal and social justice reform. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College engages the theme of justice and explores fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu and follow us on Twitter @JohnJayCollege. 


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