Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Blueprint for Justice


Today marked a big step forward for former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's effort to study the feasibility of closing Rikers Island: he announced the two dozen members of his independent commission.  (See here for coverage and the list of members.)

As part of the announcement, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said, "I gave this Commission a difficult but critically important mandate to create a blueprint for justice in New York City...I know the task ahead will not be easy."

I agree with the Speaker -- the obstacles are enormous.  (See this Newsday article for a glimpse of just a few of the challenges.)  One of my very real concerns for the Lippman Commission (its official name is the "Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform") is that it has engendered hopes that will be exceedingly difficult to meet.

The City of New York isn't closing Rikers Island any time soon.  Before the City can even begin to wrestle with the difficult logistical issues (where would you place smaller jail facilities?  how would these be paid for?), there is a need to figure out how to continue to reduce the jail population, which, by the way, is already lower than it has been for more than a generation.

Despite the challenges, we at the Center for Court Innovation have signed on to assist the Lippman Commission in any way the judge sees fit to use us.  In many respects, the Lippman Commission is a logical next step for us.  Many of our operating programs (such as the Midtown Community Court, Bronx Community Solutions, and Red Hook Community Justice Center) have been working to provide alternatives to jail for years.  And we are currently working with the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice on a number of new initiatives, including supervised release programs in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx that are attempting to reduce the use of pretrial detention.  (See this piece from Vice.)  Is it possible to crank these kinds of efforts up to a level that would be sufficient to even begin to contemplate closing Rikers?  We look forward to finding out.