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NYC Will Spend Millions To Upgrade Rikers Before Closing It

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Mayor de Blasio released a report today outlining the many city and state reforms and infrastructural changes that he says will need to be made over the next decade in order to close the jails at Rikers Island.

The report follows his announcement of the plan to close Rikers and the release of an independent panel's guide to achieving it in late March. De Blasio's report hews to many of the findings of the earlier report, saying that crime will have to continue to drop, as it has since 1990, the use of cash bail will have to continue to be curtailed, criminal cases will have to be resolved more quickly, supportive housing and other programs for people with severe mental health problems will have to come online, job programs will be needed for recently released inmates, and much more. The ultimate goal is to reduce the average daily population of the jail complex, which includes mostly pretrial detainees as well as inmates serving short sentences, to 5,000 over the next 10 years.

New York already has the lowest incarceration rate of the 10 largest U.S. cities. The current average daily population is around 9,500. A key benchmark on the road to closure is to reach an average population of 7,000 over the next five years, according to the report.

"This will be a long and difficult path," de Blasio wrote in the document.

One major obstacle to the project is identifying new sites for smaller replacement jails. The commission report called for jails in each of the five boroughs. De Blasio did not endorse this specific ask, but did lay the problem at the feet of local politicians, writing that building new jails "will depend on the desires of neighborhoods and their elected officials."

The mayor also stopped short of endorsing one major set of state law reforms called for by the commission, headed by retired New York state Chief Judge Jonathan Lipmann: reclassifying fare-beating, marijuana possession in public view, sex work, and possessing so-called "gravity knives" as civil offenses. Law enforcement reform advocate and long-shot mayoral candidate Robert Gangi criticized the omission, noting that marijuana possession and fare evasion are two of the five most common types of arrests. "Following the commission's proposal in this regard would contribute appreciably to reducing the population on Rikers," Gangi said in a statement.

De Blasio's report announces the creation of a task force consisting of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court officials, jailers, and social service nonprofits to monitor the progress of the massive project. It also mentions the creation of a pilot express bus project for transporting families of prisoners to Rikers from major transit hubs, as part of an effort to ease visiting and better tie inmates to their communities. Details on how the buses would be funded, where they would run from, who would operate them, and when the program might start were not immediately forthcoming.

A substantial chunk of the report deals with upgrading Rikers in the meantime. This seems to be in part a response to criticisms by correction officer unions that the city's jails are unsafe now, making a focus on future programs for inmates unfair to guards. The city plans to spend more than $1 billion fixing up jails including Rikers over the next 10 years, adding dedicated housing for inmates with mental illnesses, a major jail population; adding surveillance cameras to cover blind spots by the end of 2017; and renovating the visitors area. The plan also calls for outfitting inmates with scannable radio-frequency identification wristbands to track their whereabouts, which the report says will speed up the process of finding people for visits, court transportation, and enforcement of separation orders.

The mayor's report explains the upgrades this way:

We are confident that upgrading the facilities and offering more and better support for incarcerated people will help us reduce the size of the jail population by curbing recidivism. Better facilities, programming and services will also allow us to provide safer working conditions and more professional development opportunities for corrections officers.”

The closure of Rikers is far from a sure thing. Much of the closure plan is contingent on factors outside of city lawmakers' control, and the main drivers behind the closure plan, de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, will be out of office by the time the first five-year benchmark comes around (unless de Blasio pulls a Bloomberg and gets the Council to allow a third term). De Blasio acknowledged the uncertainty in his report, writing, "Rikers Island cannot be closed overnight. It would be much simpler for us to tell people what they want to hear and say we can achieve this goal quickly and easily, but we won’t do that. Instead, we are realistic."

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