De Blasio Faces Tough Road Replacing Rikers With New Jails

By: 
J. DAVID GOODMAN and MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ | NY TIMES

Before making his promise to replace Rikers Island with jails elsewhere in the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio was adamant about one thing: He would commit to the goal, but say nothing about precisely where any new jail should go.

He was insistent on that point behind closed doors, according to people briefed on the matter, and in public, when he sought to distance himself from a special City Council commission recommendation earlier this month that called for new jails near courthouses in all five boroughs.

The mayor may have had good reason to be wary.

At a time when Mr. de Blasio is battling neighborhood resistance to his plan for 90 new homeless shelters, City Council members from Staten Island to the Bronx — who have veto power over such projects — have expressed reservations if not outright hostility to the idea of constructing jails in their backyards.

The union for correction officers, whose ranks stand to be reduced by half or more under any closing plan, is also adamantly opposed to what its leader called “a fantasy.” Both Republican and Democratic challengers to the mayor have already seized on the plan as a fresh line of attack against Mr. de Blasio, who still holds a formidable lead in the polls heading into his re-election fight this year.

Mr. de Blasio has already offered a concession to opponents, saying he had no intention of putting a jail on Staten Island, blunting what might have been vocal criticism during his visit to the borough this week. “That’s not my plan,” he said last week. “I’ll sit with the council members and figure out what we can agree on as a path forward.”

Those conversations will be tough. The Times surveyed all 51 members of the City Council, asking whether they would support construction of a new jail in their districts. Though a majority backed the plan to eventually close Rikers Island, when it came to new jails, most either declined to answer, refused to commit or offered a resounding no.

“No way,” said Councilman Steven Matteo of Staten Island.

“No jail in my district, ever,” said Councilman Andy King, adding that the area of the northern Bronx that he represents was already saturated with shelters, group homes and centers for those with mental illness. “I’ll lose my mind if they ever try.”

Even those council members who have backed the plan to close Rikers acknowledged how difficult it would be to generate even lukewarm support among their constituents for a new jail.

“No one wants to have a jail in their district,” said Helen Rosenthal, an Upper West Side councilwoman. “But,” she added, “we can’t let that understandable reluctance be an excuse to let the same injustices continue.”

Part of the reason the Rikers jail complex has been allowed to languish and decay for so long is that it is practically invisible to most New Yorkers, sitting on an island in the East River served by one city bus route and connected to the mainland by a single narrow bridge.

The commission, led by Jonathan Lippman, the state’s former chief judge, proposed putting new jails close to courthouses, transportation and the communities where inmates come from.

The city already has three jails outside of Rikers Island: two that are currently used, in Downtown Brooklyn and in Lower Manhattan; and a disused complex next to the Queens County courthouse. All would likely be renovated or replaced under the plan. (A barge in the Bronx is also used for inmates.)

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the council members with those jails in their districts who are among the most supportive of the commission’s recommendations.

“The No. 1 complaint that I’ve gotten by far is from local merchants, because correction officers use up a lot of parking,” said Councilman Steve Levin, whose district includes the Brooklyn House of Detention, which is surrounded by high-priced real estate. He would support expanding it.

But in the two places where new jails could possibly be built — in the South Bronx and on northern Staten Island — the tone is very different. None of the three Staten Island council members, nor the borough president, back a new jail on the island. In the South Bronx, where the courthouse is, one local councilwoman, Vanessa L. Gibson, supports closing Rikers but hedged on building a new jail in her district. Another, Rafael Salamanca Jr., offered a similar response.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker, who also represents portions of the South Bronx but is not up for re-election, said she would support having a jail there.

Mr. de Blasio, eager to avoid neighborhood battles as he gears up for re-election, has argued that bureaucratic hurdles would make constructing five new jails exceedingly difficult. Any new construction would require a lengthy process called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure that involves several public hearings and approvals from the community board, borough president, city planning commission, City Council and mayor.

History provides some guide to the politics: In 2008, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg withdrew a plan to replace the most decrepit jails on Rikers with modern facilities in the Bronx after meeting with fierce grass-roots opposition. Mr. Bloomberg similarly scaled back plans to double the size of the Brooklyn House of Detention; just reopening the existing jail in 2012, closed for almost a decade, proved contentious.

Politics may be the least of Mr. de Blasio’s troubles with Rikers, where a federal monitor has found that efforts to reduce violence by inmates and guards have yielded little progress.

Wholesale changes to the criminal justice system in the city would be needed to bring the jail population below 5,000, a number considered feasible for handling in smaller jails around the city. Trials would have to speed up. More people would be released before trial. Diversion programs expanded.

At each point, logistics present hurdles and political opposition could flare.

“Right now, in criminal court, the system is the punishment,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, said at a news conference in which the commission’s report was unveiled. “We just have to commit, in our hearts, in our minds and in our budgets, that we are going to focus on crime prevention strategies just as much as we focus on hard-edge prosecution strategies.”

Officials now say they have never been so optimistic about shrinking the inmate population, citing falling crime rates, new programs to make it easier to pay bail and provide alternatives to incarceration, and a sharp reduction in arrests for low-level offenses. The jail population has declined 18 percent since Mr. de Blasio took office in 2014, according to city statistics.

To further cut the inmate population, the Lippman report recommends substantial reforms, including eliminating cash bail and handling fare beating, prostitution and low-level marijuana possession as civil rather than criminal matters. Ultimately, the report says, pretrial detention, which accounts for 85 percent of the Rikers population, should be reserved for those who pose a threat to public safety.

The commission has estimated it will cost $10.6 billion to build a modern correctional system. The city will eventually save money, the commission said, by lowering maintenance costs and slashing the number of correction officers from about 10,000 today to about 3,700. Those officers would need to adopt a new approach, said David Fullard, a professor at Empire State College and a former corrections captain who worked on Rikers Island for 30 years.

“You can take a building down; that’s the easy part,” Mr. Fullard said. But unless there is better training and supervision, he said, “you’re importing the culture of violence into your brand new facilities.”