New York City Wants To Move 16- And 17-Year-Olds From Rikers Jail To Bronx Center

William Neuman

Under intense pressure to improve conditions in the jail complex on Rikers Island, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has developed a plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds to a dedicated jail for youths in the Bronx.

The cost to carry out the plan is expected to be about $300 million, officials said.

The plan calls for the city to reconfigure the Horizon Juvenile Center, which is currently used to hold 14- and 15-year olds, to house the 16- and 17-year olds who are typically sent to Rikers.

A 2015 settlement with the Department of Justice on reform at Rikers called on the city to seek an alternative location to house inmates under 18, although it stopped short of requiring it.

New York is the only state other than North Carolina that prosecutes all children 16 and older as adults if they are accused of a crime. In New York City, they are likely to wind up at Rikers, a notoriously brutal lockup. There are currently about 200 inmates who are 16 or 17 at Rikers, down from about 330 in 2013.

The city and many advocates have urged state lawmakers to pass a law that would treat those under the age of 18 as juveniles, but the proposal has gone nowhere in Albany.

The new plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers must overcome several hurdles. It has to be approved through the city’s time-consuming land use process: The local community board and the Bronx borough president get to weigh in and it must be approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

Liz Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said the Bronx center would include classrooms and space for therapy sessions and other activities, better than those at Rikers. “We think this is a very big step,” Ms. Glazer said. “By moving them off the island, we’ll be able to ensure that they have the opportunity to have state-of-the-art facilities that provide the kind of programming that’s appropriate.”

But the change will not happen any time soon; officials said it could take four years or more to get approvals and to complete construction. The plan also calls for the city to remodel another juvenile detention site, the Crossroads Juvenile Center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to hold all of the city’s 14- and 15-year-old detainees, including those who had previously gone to Horizon.

The cost of refurbishing the Bronx center is budgeted at $170 million. The cost of remodeling the Brooklyn center is budgeted at $129 million.

Advocates supported the move but lamented the long delay before the new center will be ready, assuming that it survives the land-use review process.

“I absolutely think it is the right thing to do,” said Glenn Martin, a former prison inmate who is the founder of JustLeadershipUSA, a prison reform advocacy group that has pushed for the entire Rikers Island jail complex to be shut down. “Rikers Island has been found to be unsafe and unsuitable for housing 16- and 17-year-olds.”

But Mr. Martin, who was jailed there when he was 16, called the wait of four years or more “horrendous.”

“For us this is a marathon, not a sprint.” he said.

More than 95 percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds at Rikers are awaiting trial. More than a third have been charged with robbery and about one in 10 have been charged with assault, according to data provided by the city.

Increased attention was focused on the plight of younger teenagers at Rikers in 2014 after The New Yorker published an article about Kalief Browder, who was sent there at 16, accused of stealing a backpack. He never stood trial or was found guilty of any crime but he spent three years at Rikers, nearly two of them in solitary confinement. He told of being beaten repeatedly by guards and other inmates and trying several times to kill himself while in custody. After his release he remained deeply troubled by the experience and he committed suicide last year at age 22.

The city ended solitary confinement for Rikers inmates under 18 in December 2014.