Correction officials are forecasting that the population at the dangerous Rikers Island complex will balloon in the coming years, seriously complicating the legal mandate to close the jails there by 2027.
The jailed population, which was at 5,940 last month, is growing, and an internal Correction Department forecast indicates the population will be higher than 7,000 in less than two years, according to Commissioner Louis Molina. The problem: In order for Rikers to close and pre-trial detainees to be moved to four smaller jails in the boroughs, as a 2019 law requires, there cannot be more than 3,300 people incarcerated.
“In 2027, we will not be at 3,300,” Molina said during a City Council hearing Tuesday focused on problems at city jails. Construction has already begun on new jails to replace those on Rikers Island, and a city law forbids incarcerated people from being held there past that date.
So, Molina said, “We have to think about: Where does the balance of that population go if we are not at 3,300?”
The statement outraged and concerned advocates for incarcerated people who have been counting on Rikers closing.
New York City jails are the deadliest they have been in more than 25 years, according to an analysis of city data by Gothamist. Nineteen people have died in city custody or shortly after being released this year, out of an average daily population of nearly 6,000 people.
That’s the highest rate since 1996, when 84 people died out of an average daily population of about 20,000. Gothamist is tracking deaths in city custody here.
Advocates say decarceration is the only way forward, but the city is moving in an opposite direction.
”Why do we just say we’re going to throw our hands up and say nothing changes, and send more people here to die?” Sarita Daftary, co-director of Freedom Agenda, asked City Council members.
For years, the incarcerated population in the city gradually decreased. But over the last year, there has been a spike in some crimes, a mandate from Mayor Eric Adams to be more aggressive in arrests, and continued slowdowns in the courts. So more people who are charged but not convicted languish for longer periods of time at city jails; more than 1,300 incarcerated people have been held for more than one year, according to city data.
City Council Member Carlina Rivera said a proposed bill creating interagency “population review teams” to identify incarcerated people who can safely be released would help to reduce the number of detainees in order to move toward closure of Rikers. But Molina did not say if the Adams administration supported the measure.
Other ways advocates call for reducing the jail population: Boost supportive housing for those experiencing homelessness, increase the use of electronic monitoring as an alternative to detention, and spend more money on community-based public safety efforts.