On April 2, an impressive group of elected officials, criminal justice leaders and community activists convened in the Moot Court Room at John Jay College to mark the release of a landmark report recommending the closure of Rikers Island.  The recommendation was the result of work by The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, created by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and chaired by former Chief Judge, Jonathan Lippman. 

At the press conference at John Jay, Judge Lippman and Speaker Mark-Viverito said that “closing Rikers Island is a moral imperative.” They said they were grateful that Mayor Bill de Blasio had also embraced the recommendation to close Rikers.  Everyone at the press conference recognized that, with this remarkable political alignment, now comes the hard part: to institute reforms at multiple stages of the criminal justice process that will reduce the jail population in half, build new jails close to the courthouses in all five boroughs, and implement plans for a new use of Rikers Island.  

We should be proud of the role that John Jay College played leading up to this historic moment.  Many of the ideas embraced by the Lippman Commission were first advanced by Martin F. Horn, a Distinguished Lecturer at John Jay and John Jay alumnus. Ten years ago, as the New York City Correction Commissioner, he proposed significantly reducing the number of persons confined on Rikers Island by expanding jails in Brooklyn and the Bronx as part of an overall effort to phase out Rikers Island.  During his tenure, from 2002 to 2009, he also convened a Discharge Planning Collaborative which identified many of the same issues discussed in the Commission’s report, including the challenge of the high volume of pretrial detainees staying less than three days and the large numbers of frequent users who come in and out of corrections custody. Now, a decade later, although his ambitious plan was stymied by opposition to the new facilities, the recommendations and analysis advanced by Professor Horn have been adopted as City policy.

In 2015, in an interview published by City and State, I was asked about the future of Rikers Island.  This topic had come to the forefront of the City’s discourse on criminal justice policy because of some high profile events.  The Southern District of New York, under the leadership of Preet Bharara, had released a scathing report citing the “culture of violence” on Rikers.  A chilling article in the New Yorker detailed the tragic story of Kalief Browder who spent three years on Rikers, including many months in solitary confinement.  Following his release, Kalief took his own life and he became a rallying cry to close Rikers.  In response to the question, I said that any vision for a future of criminal justice policy in New York City could not include Rikers Island; I recommended that Rikers be closed and replaced with small community-based facilities.  City and State published a series of articles on the idea of closing Rikers, Neil Barsky, founder and chairman of the Marshall Project, penned an op-ed in The New York Times endorsing that idea, and Crain’s published ideas for new uses of Rikers. Given added impetus by a community organizing effort to #CloseRikers, the stage was set for a new look at the idea advanced by Commissioner Horn.   

In her February 11, 2016 State of the City Address, Speaker Mark-Viverito announced the creation of a Commission to explore the future of the City’s pretrial detention system, including the future of Rikers Island.  I was honored to be invited by Speaker Mark-Viverito to serve with 26 other New Yorkers as a member of this Commission.   I was named to the subcommittee examining the future of jails in New York City, chaired by former John Jay Professor Michael Jacobson.  I was supported in this work by Bettina Muenster, Executive Associate for Research and Special Projects who provided crucial assistance at meetings of the Commission and the subcommittee.   Bettina and I often referenced the insights we had gained on the Vera-John Jay study trip to learn about prisons in Germany.  Those insights are reflected in the Commission report.  I consider my service on the Lippman Commission as a high point in my professional career.

In the fall of 2016, the College collaborated with filmmaker Bill Moyers and his Public Square Media team to raise awareness of conditions on Rikers Island with film screenings of his documentary, RIKERS. A private screening of the film, prior to the official release, was attended by members of the Independent Commission, and was followed by a panel discussion moderated by journalist Ellis Cose with panelists including Judge Lippman, Keith Ford, a formerly incarcerated individual, Executive Assistant Corporation Counsel Thomas Giovanni, and Moyers. The discussion captured reactions to the documented experiences of inmates and examined potential implications for the Commission findings and recommendations.  

The College hosted a second public screening of RIKERS in the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. This screening generated considerable community interest and media attention regarding the disturbing realities at Rikers. The theater was filled to capacity, mostly with John Jay students.  After the screening, there was a “talk back” with individuals whose experience on Rikers was reflected in the documentary.  The discussion was high quality and urgent, reflecting genuine concern over issues of mass incarceration and conditions of confinement, as well as our community’s deep interest in criminal justice reform.

Special recognition is due to Herb Sturz, a member of the Lippman Commission who first proposed the transfer of Rikers to the state and the creation of borough based facilities 37 years ago when he was Deputy Mayor under Mayor Koch. Mr. Sturz is well known to the John Jay community for his connection to the Vera Fellows program,   his receipt of an honorary doctorate in 2006, and as an honoree of the 2009 Educating for Justice Gala.

Finally, through a remarkable coincidence, as the Commission was engaged in its deliberations, the John Jay research team called the Misdemeanor Justice Project was deeply engaged in analysis of data from the city Department of Correction.  The MJP team, headed by Dr. Preeti Chauhan, Associate Professor of Psychology, released two reports on trends in correction. The first, released in December 2016, documented the steep decline in admissions to DOC custody over the past twenty years.  The second, released days after the Lippman Commission report, highlighted changed in bail conditions, the length of stay in DOC custody, and methods of release from custody. As these analyses were completed over the past few months, they were presented to Judge Lippman, the relevant subcommittees and commission staff.  The final report acknowledged the contributions of Professor Chauhan and the MJP team.  We can expect that, in the years to come, the ground-breaking work of the MJP will provide the basis for tracking the City’s progress in reducing the jail population.      

We should be proud of John Jay’s contributions, directly and indirectly, to this historic commitment to shutter Rikers Island.  We have been part of a movement to create a more humane, efficient, and safe environment for those New Yorkers who are held in corrections custody or work in these vitally important institutions.