Council members intro plan to reduce Rikers population by nearly 3,000

City Council Member Lincoln Restler rallying with advocates to close Rikers Island in City Hall Park. Tuesday, April 11, 2023.
Photo by Camille Botello

A cadre of City Council members on Tuesday introduced several measures aimed at reducing the Rikers Island jail population from where it currently stands at just below 6,000 to 3,300 in order to close the troubled facility by the mandated 2027 deadline.

The city must reduce the island’s population to at least that number as it’ll be the capacity for the four borough-based jails being built to replace Rikers once they’re completed.

The measures are laid out in “A Pathway to Ending Mass Incarceration in New York City” — a plan authored by City Council Members Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn) and Kevin Riley (D-Bronx) to shut down Rikers by the mandated August 31, 2027, date.

The proposals are designed to get more inmates off the island by expanding supervised release and alternatives to incarceration programs, increasing funding for supportive housing programs for those involved in the criminal justice system and holding the city Department of Corrections accountable for getting people to all their court dates on time, according to a copy of the plan.

During a City Council meeting on Tuesday, Restler said he and Riley’s plan is a crucial step toward closing the troubled jail complex in the timeframe stipulated by the council’s 2019 legislation to shutter the jail.

“I think many people in this body have strongly expressed their support for the closure of Rikers, but it’s not going to happen on its own,” Restler said. “We need to make deliberate policy decisions and investments that will actually drive down the population. The decision for how many people are incarcerated in New York City is a decision. It is a policy decision. And there is no more epic failure than mass incarceration. And we must end it.”

At a news conference earlier Tuesday afternoon, the Brooklyn pol said that people often leave Rikers — which saw 19 inmate deaths last year — worse than when they came in.

“What we all sadly know is that too many people who come out of Rikers Island are in worse shape than when they entered,” Restler said. “Rikers Island is a stain on our city, it is a shameful place. It absolutely must close.”

Council Members Kevin Riley (center) and Carmen De La Rosa (left) at rally to close Rikers Island in City Hall Park.Photo by Camille Botello

Riley emphasized that many people held at Rikers, who either struggle with mental health or addiction issues, deserve to be helped rather than jailed by the city.

“When we go visit Rikers Island, we understand that they’re not supposed to be jailed — they need help, they need resources,” Riley said.

The total cost of Restler and Riley’s plan would amount to $300 million-a-year, according to a published report.

The plan includes items like increasing funding for the city’s Supervised Release program by $28 million to a total of $100 million, while building a more “intensive” supervised release model to connect those with mental health or substance use issues to the proper services, according to a copy of the plan. Additionally, it calls for boosting funding to Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) and Alternative to Detention (ATD) programs by $34 million, in order to shift individuals struggling with mental illness off of Rikers Island and into proper health care.

The scheme also includes putting an additional $26 million into expanding Justice Involved Supportive Housing (JISH), a housing program for those with drug and mental health issues who cycle in and out of incarceration and homelessness. The lawmakers are seeking 380 more beds to be created immediately, in addition to the 120 that are currently online.

The council members said the administration should also create a system to hold DOC accountable for getting inmates to “100%” of their court dates on time (currently only 72% of those held in city jails get to their court dates on time, according to the lawmakers).

The list of proposals come just weeks after City Hall revealed that the borough-based jail slated for Brooklyn likely won’t be completed until 2029, two years after Rikers is required to shut down. When asked by City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams for an up-to-date timeframe for when the borough-based jails would be completed last month, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina didn’t provide one.

Council Member Carmen De La Rosa (D-Manhattan) said that in the absence of a clear timeline or plan for closing the jail from the administration, the council had to take matters into its own hands.

“If this administration doesn’t have a plan, you got to believe that there are council members in here that not only have lived experiences, but that understand what it means to have family die behind prison walls because of the neglect that exists,” De La Rosa said. “So if ya’ll don’t have a plan, we are here to provide one for you today.”

Additional reporting by Camille Botello