New York City’s top police official has warned that looming reforms intended to fundamentally transform the city’s jail system could endanger the well-being of people residing and working in the area.
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill recently put the public on notice after the City Council overwhelmingly voted to close the notorious Rikers Island correctional complex by 2026 and replace it with four smaller community jails that, collectively, will hold fewer inmates.
“I’m really concerned going forward with the reduced capacity that we’ll be able to keep the city as safe as possible,” O’Neill cautioned in an exclusive interview with CBS2 New York.
The New York Times reports that “the new facilities will be smaller than first anticipated with a combined daily capacity of about 3,300 people,” adding, the transition “will require reducing the jail population by more than half by 2026.” Opponents of the initiative are apprehensive that the changes might result in a shortage of available cells for future needs. Currently, the city’s jail system is the second-largest in the nation, housing approximately 7,000 inmates daily.
Officials based NYC’s “decarceration plan” on a declining crime rate along with criminal justice reform measures crafted to keep people out of jail, such as a state law that kicks in next year that will abolish cash bail for most individuals charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.
“Come January 1, there are going to be very few people that are bail eligible, so you’re going to see people that have significant criminal histories, significant firearms histories, and they’re not going to be held in,” Commissioner O’Neill continued. “That’s going to put people at risk, put New Yorkers at risk, put victims at risk, and put witnesses at risk.”
Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio embraced the years-long effort to close the city jails on Rikers Island, which sits isolated in the East River between the Bronx and Queens. His administration unveiled plans last year to replace the facilities with “modern, community-based jails throughout the City … designed to be integrated into surrounding neighborhoods.” Lawmakers approved the final proposal 36-13 on October 17, deciding to proceed with the $8 billion transition project and establish four new borough-based detention centers, one each in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
This borough-based system would strengthen connections to families, attorneys, courts, medical and mental health care, and faith and community-based organizations. Being closer to home and transit would enhance the network of support systems for people who are detained, and help prevent future returns to jail.
The new facilities would be designed to foster safety and wellbeing for both those incarcerated and for staff, providing space for quality education, health, and therapeutic programming. Modern facilities would also serve as a catalyst for positive change in the community and the criminal justice system.
We ask you to join us in reimagining these jails as civic assets that would provide a better life for those who are detained and work in them, support smoother transitions back home, and serve as resources for the community.
“Mass incarceration did not begin in New York City, but it will end here,” Mayor de Blasio said earlier this month. “With the lowest rate of incarceration of any major city, we are proving you don’t need to arrest your way to safety. New York is telling a different story, one where we can keep fathers at home and kids in schools and still be the safest big city in America.”
The New York Times reported that de Blasio “secured perhaps his most progressive achievement so far as mayor,” noting he has two years remaining in office. However, The Times added: “To make the plan a reality, city officials must place their trust in future elected leaders to share the same vision and see it through on the same aggressive timeline.”
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter@JeffreyCawood.