Small steps can help fix mess at Rikers Island

Even the smallest changes could make a difference to the inmates of Rikers Island — right down to their clothes.

So, the City Council’s proposed legislation that would require inmates to be able to wear their own clothes to court appearances, rather than jail uniforms, is welcome. It could remove just a piece of the degradation that comes with not being able to afford bail. The council’s additional proposal that the city Department of Corrections transport inmates to all court appearances could prevent the lengthy delays that often lead inmates to spend months, or even years, at Rikers before going to trial. And the last prong of the council’s newest legislative suggestions — returning the city’s 3 percent bail fee if an individual makes his or her court appearances — is simply common sense.

These suggestions may seem tiny, but they’re also easy, more immediate ways to change the awful system that leads those who can’t make bail to languish at Rikers.

A longer-term opportunity to improve life for the city’s inmates comes with NYC’s plans, announced last month, to move 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers to the Bronx’s Horizon Juvenile Detention Center, which currently houses 14- and 15-year-olds. At Horizon, the older teens could have better housing, classrooms and activity spaces. The younger teens, meanwhile, will be moved from Horizon to a juvenile detention center in Brooklyn.

This comes just over a year after a U.S. Department of Justice settlement recommended finding alternative sites for the approximately 200 younger inmates at Rikers. It may be the best step city officials can take, given Albany’s inability to pass “raise the age” legislation that would treat those younger than 18 as juveniles. New York is one of only two states where teens 16 and older are tried and sentenced as adults.

City Hall officials say moving the young inmates won’t happen for four years. The city should pursue a faster timeline. There are too many young inmates who will sit there, waiting, in the coming months and years. None of this is going to fix Rikers — that requires far broader strokes. But even the smallest changes could make a difference.