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Closing Rikers Island Will Leave Thousands of Criminals Free to Roam the Streets

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Closing Rikers Island Will Leave Thousands of Criminals Free to Roam the Streets

New York Post October 17, 2019
Urban PolicyCrimeNYC

Thursday, the New York City Council will vote on the latest proposal to close the centralized detention facilities on Rikers Island and replace them with a borough-based jail system. The baseline estimate of how many inmates that system will be expected to accommodate by 2026 was recently revised down to just 3,544 — about half of its population today.

When one considers (1) the seriousness of the charges most city jail inmates are facing, (2) the level of violence those inmates engage in behind bars and (3) the potential for future crime increases, one thing becomes crystal clear: There is simply no way to cut the average daily jail population — which the city itself has described as “more violent and difficult to manage” — that much more without leaving dangerous criminals on the street, where you can be sure they will continue to diminish the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

According to the most recent data from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, 62 percent of the city’s pretrial jail population is facing violent felony charges; 30 percent are facing other felony charges. Just 8 percent of pretrial detainees are facing misdemeanor charges. The vast majority of these inmates are repeat offenders.

Historically, about 75 percent of the city’s jail inmates have previously been admitted at least once. For an idea of how cutting the number of jail inmates facing felony charges by about 2,500 (roughly 50 percent) in less than seven years will play out, just think back to last week when Randy Santos — who was out on bail thanks to anti-pretrial detention activists, despite his violent history — allegedly bludgeoned four people to death in Chinatown.

Another indicator of what the city can expect is the increasingly high rate of violence committed by city inmates (often against other inmates) while locked up. Violent inmate-on-inmate incidents in city jails has risen every year since FY 2015, going from 37.8 per 1,000 to 69.5 per 1,000 by FY 2019. In fact, despite an average daily population of 7,938 in FY 2019, there were more than 12,000 fight/assault infractions — almost double the 6,458 the city documented in FY 1998, when city jails housed nearly 10,000 more inmates. Much of that increase, as I’ve written in these pages, can be attributed to the mayor’s ban on solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 21. That fewer restrictions on inmates while inside jails resulted in more violence doesn’t bode well for what communities can expect from these same individuals without any restrictions on the outside.

Many in the #CloseRikers movement love pointing out that the city has steadily been reducing its jail population for a number of years without seeing a bump up in crime. That may not be the case for long.

Murders and shootings are up citywide, albeit slightly. What using a citywide benchmark could mask, however, is the fact that any crime increases attributable to decarceration aren’t going to be evenly distributed; and some of the city’s neighborhoods are already seeing crime increases. In 35 of the city’s 75 precincts, shootings are up. Many of the city’s most serious crimes are already committed by criminals on probation, parole or who have pending cases. Forcing the average daily population down to 3,500 inmates will only exacerbate that problem.

Between the city’s plans to put more criminals on the street and the state’s efforts to raise the transaction costs of criminal prosecutions, New Yorkers are going to be dealing with a higher number of criminals walking the streets. That makes the NYPD’s job more difficult, and the city less safe.

This piece originally appeared at the New York Post

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Rafael A. Mangual is a fellow and deputy director for legal policy at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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