Breaking out of NYC’s Rikers crisis: There’s actually a pragmatic and progressive plan

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What’s happening inside of New York City’s jails — where 12 inmates have died so far this year amid an explosion of self-harm and violence committed by both inmates and guards — is inexcusable, but that isn’t stopping Mayor de Blasio from offering excuses.

His Potemkin visit to Rikers Island last week, where he didn’t speak to a single prisoner or working guard about the appalling conditions there, was his first in more than four years. After, the mayor continued blaming the courts and correction officers calling in sick while droning on about the city’s plan to close the jail in 2027, long after he’s gone.

He didn’t mention that the virus closed one of the units he visited, or explain what happened to the regular updates to the closure plan that disappeared at about the same time that the city was preparing to use Rikers inmates to bury virus victims if need be.

De Blasio’s approach is sick and cynical, but it’s not stupid given how the jails have long been a moral stain New Yorkers mostly manage to ignore. If looking away is a little tougher for a progressive Democrat than it was for Rudy Giuliani or Mike Bloomberg, it worked well enough to get de Blasio through his first seven years more or less politically unscathed even as conditions deteriorated to the point that a federal monitor came in to oversee the jails.

Meantime, Democratic nominee and mayor-in-waiting Eric Adams says he supports the plan to close Rikers and the Vernon C. Bain jail barge docked in the Bronx — but not the plan to build new high-rise jails in the boroughs to replace them.

It’s sensible for Adams to keep his options open until he has real power next year given all of the compromises that went into the current plan, which is projected to cost $8.3 billion, or $3,700 a square foot — about four times the cost per square foot than for a brand-new hospital or seven times more than for a Class A office building. But his position won’t remain tenable after the Democratic nominee presumably becomes mayor in January: There’s no closing Rikers without building new jails.

Adams should talk with the former director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Elizabeth Glazer, who left the de Blasio administration last summer after police were sent out to enforce masking and social distancing rules and then ended up rioting against protesters and turning their backs on looting in Midtown in a sort of sulking counter-protest.

Glazer is now editing a new publication, Vital City, that’s the first magazine of urban policy ideas to launch here since City Journal in 1990, which her father Nat wrote for and my father Fred edited way back when.

Vital City’s just-published first report, ”What To Do About Closing Rikers,” co-written by Glazer and CUNY professor and former Department of Correction commissioner Michael Jacobson, lays out a serious and specific seven-part plan for getting the new jails right, starting by reducing the prisoner population to the minimum needed to maintain public safety.

While New York already has the lowest percentage of people jailed of any big American city to go along with the lowest murder rate, the report calls for bringing the incarcerated population down to about 2,200 — a third less then the current plan calls for and half of the current population — to allow for smaller new jails with more hospital space.

The proof this is doable is that the city did it last year, reducing the jail population by 30% as the virus ravaged New York in March and April by stopping to consider whether people really needed to remain there, or be brought there. Very few of those who were released ended up getting rearrested; overall, fewer than 1% of those released pre-trial end up getting rearrested for a violent felony.

“All it takes is paying attention every day to matters of life and death,” says Glazer, whose plan also calls for a new deputy mayor for justice policy and operations to track the numbers and show what can happen when an administration holds itself to account for getting things right.

“Safety doesn’t start with the police and the criminal justice system — that should be a last resort,” says Glazer. “There’s something pernicious about conferring on one group the sole ability to use force. It’s necessary, probably, but it can also have toxic effects.”

“What Vital City will do,” Glazer continues, “is get the best ideas from government and academia, often having to be translated from the original German, and give them specificity — actually map them onto the urban mechanics of budget and operations” in place of bumper-sticker slogans and magical thinking.

Rudy Giuliani was a regular City Journal reader; Eric Adams may want to subscribe to Vital City ahead of the first issue due out in December, on gun violence.

harrysiegel@gmail.com

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