Plan laid out to close Rikers Island jail

- Members of an independent commission to study the notorious Rikers Island jail complex have recommended closing the facility over the next 10 years.

The commission- established in the wake of a string of brutality cases that exposed poor supervision, questionable medical care and corruption at Rikers- was headed by the state's former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman.

Panel members Jeremy Travis, President of John Jay College of Criminial Justice and Stanley Richards, SVP at The Fortune Society Inc, spoke with FOX 5 NY morning program, 'Good Day New York' about their report, 'A More Just New York City.'

It calls for a top-down transformation of the criminal justice system and fundamentally changing how cases are processed. Incarceration would be used as a last resort. Minor offenses could be moved to civil court.

“(Rikers) is a place known for brutality and is highly inefficient. It’s on an island. It’s an old system and an old approach to a modern problem," said Travis.

Under the new plan, smaller jails would be placed in the footprint of existing facilities in downtown areas and near court houses.

On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was initially opposed to the idea, now supports the plan.

"It will take many years and it will take many tough decisions along the way, but it will happen," said de Blasio on Friday.

The Rikers population has dropped to 10,000 from a high of 15,000 just a few years ago, according to city figures.

De Blasio credited the drop partly to shifts in how law enforcement handles lower level crimes, like smoking marijuana in public.

"Overtime, as the jail population comes down and we find another purpose for Rikers Island that generates revenue, the city will save over $1.4B  a year," said Travis.

Rikers is a 400-acre (162-hectare) former dump near the runways of LaGuardia Airport. It is accessible only by a narrow bridge between it and Queens. For decades, the city has sent its inmates there while they await trial, where they're housed in 10 jail facilities.

Advocates for prisoners have been arguing that smaller jails, based in the city's neighborhoods, would be better able to provide services and reduce delays getting criminal suspects to and from court.

It wasn't immediately clear how local elected officials in the communities where new jails might be built would react. Past attempts to build or expand existing jails in the boroughs have been met with significant resistance from neighborhood groups and others. Also unclear is how the politically powerful jail guards union would react to such a plan, which could conceivably shrink their membership.

The city currently employs about 10,000 correction officers.

A union spokesman didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The union's former president was indicted by federal prosecutors last year in a sprawling municipal corruption case. He has pleaded not guilty.

Violence, mismanagement and corruption have been the subject of intense scrutiny by the media and federal prosecutors in recent years.

A 2015 settlement of civil litigation over pervasive brutality led to the installation of a monitor responsible for overseeing the city's progress in adding thousands of surveillance cameras and stricter policies on use of force.

The Associated Press and other news outlets first exposed conditions on Rikers in a series of reports in 2014 that highlighted violence, poor supervision, questionable medical care and failures to prevent suicides.

Those deaths included a homeless ex-Marine who essentially baked to death in a hot cell and a mentally ill man who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days.

With the Associated Press

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