Rikers Island population reduction effort gets nearly $11M investment in de Blasio’s preliminary budget

Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined a nearly $11 million investment to close Rikers Island in his 2019 preliminary budget on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.
Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined a nearly $11 million investment to close Rikers Island in his 2019 preliminary budget on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. Photo Credit: nusr_et via Instagram

Nearly $11 million of Bill de Blasio’s $88.67 billion preliminary budget for 2019 is allocated toward three programs designed to reduce the inmate population at Rikers Island, the mayor announced on Thursday.

In accordance with his 10-year plan of shuttering the scandal-ridden complex, de Blasio committed to funding two pre-incarceration diversion programs and improving communication services between jailed mothers and their children.

Allocating $5.72 million toward the latter, he spoke of the “horrible” way that the elemental bond between a mother and a child is broken due to incarceration, calling it “one of the saddest realities” in the city.

“If those moms can somehow get a focus on life after incarceration, it’s very important to break the negative cycle for them,” de Blasio said, referencing the lack of time, space and peace that jailed mothers encounter while attempting to connect with their children. “Kids who unfortunately are children of those incarcerated have too much of a propensity to keep from wanting to break that cycle. We believe that fundamentally reduces recidivism.”

While one program is designed to avoid relapse, the other two expand funds for diverting those with behavior- or substance-related issues to wellness programs before incarceration occurs.

A $4 million project aims to expand mental health screenings for those awaiting arraignment in the outer boroughs, while a $1.54 million undertaking aims to accelerate the screening process that determines the mental competence of defendants before they undergo trial.

The three programs will reduce the jail population at Rikers Island by 159 inmates per day, according to the mayor.

“This is one piece of a much broader puzzle, but one that we think is very important and deserved,” he said.

These initiatives come on the heels of a $30 million commitment de Blasio made as part of his Rikers Island shutdown plan, in March 2017. He has said that the complex wouldn’t close completely until the citywide jail population is below 5,000.

His proposal included moving the remaining inmates to smaller, borough-based jails, the placement of which would be entrusted to the City Council.

On his way to achieving the goal, de Blasio reported that the number of inmates had dropped below a monthly average of 9,000 — a record low in 35 years — in December. The George Motchan Detention Center is slated to be the first of Rikers’ nine jails to close, by summer.

The impetus to shutter Rikers Island was realized in the last few years, especially as the jail complex had cultivated an environment of violence — both by and toward Department of Corrections officers — and corruption, resulting in the deaths of several inmates.

So far, the drop in the inmate population has been attributed to a crackdown on arrest procedures for low-level crimes, a supervised release program that allows a judge to free those who cannot make bail before trial, and the expansion of diversion programs, such as those included in the preliminary budget for 2019.

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