NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The speaker of the New York City Council vowed Thursday to unclog the court system and shrink the inmate population to the point that officials could consider eventually closing the troubled Rikers Island jail.
Melissa Mark-Viverito used her State of the City address to announce the creation of a new criminal justice commission, chaired by former chief state judge Jonathan Lippman, to conduct a top-to-bottom review of how New Yorkers interact with the city’s criminal justice system. Its key task: to study the fate of violence-plagued Rikers, the 400-acre island in the East River that houses most of the city’s 10,000 inmates.READ MORE: Attorney Says Current Whereabouts Of Brian Laundrie, Gabby Petito's Fiancé, Are Unknown
“For too long, Rikers has not stood for more justice, but for revenge. It has come to represent our worst tendencies and our biggest failures,” said Mark-Viverito, a Democrat. “We must explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”
Mark-Viverito’s call could be the first step to close the jail, which activists believe is too broken to be fixed, plagued by a culture of brutality, misconduct and corruption. The push for changes at Rikers began in 2014 after reports by The Associated Press on dozens of deaths there highlighted poor supervision, questionable medical care and failure to prevent suicides.
The speaker said the commission would study ways to decrease the jail’s population, including proposals to move adolescents and those suffering from mental illness off the island, to reduce pretrial detention rates and to utilize more community courts and smaller jail facilities spread out across the city’s five boroughs. She said she hoped that the move would prevent others from repeating the fate of Bronx resident Kalief Browder, who was 16 when he was sent to Rikers after being accused of stealing a backpack.
He spent three years there, nearly two in solitary confinement, before eventually being released without facing a trial. He later killed himself.
“Kalief entered as a child but left as a broken man,” said Mark-Viverito, acknowledging Browder’s mother in the audience. “It was not one failure which led to his death. It was generations of failures compounded on one another.”
While prison reform advocates cheered the plan, Norman Seabrook, the head of the correction officers union, said the call to shutter Rikers was “not a dream, but a fantasy” and questioned the feasibility of relocating the inmates.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio did not take a position on closing Rikers but said City Hall was already looking to reduce the inmate population “wherever we house our jails.”READ MORE: Teen Stabbed To Death After Dutchess County High School Football Game, Former Student Charged
Mark-Viverito also proposed a plan to wipe away old arrest warrants — issued when a suspect fails to show up in court for a summons — for minor offenses like public urination and drinking, littering and loitering in parks. She wants to eliminate hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants, which she said would eliminate a bottleneck in the courts and free up law enforcement officers to pursue more serious offenses.
“Spending the night in jail on a 10-year-old warrant for being in the park after dark is not just unfair — it’s senseless,” she said.
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch told CBS2’s Dick Brennan in a statement that he fiercely opposes warrant amnesty.
“Densely populated cities like ours require that everyone act in a civil manner or our neighborhoods will become virtual cesspools. Lack of enforcement of quality of life laws endangers the health and welfare of everyone and makes the city a less attractive place to live, work or visit,” Lynch said.
Joseph Giacalone, a professor at John Jay College and a former NYPD sergeant, said that law enforcement is now getting “stuck between bad policy and bad politics.”
“These are individuals who may have committed other crimes and maybe others in the future, and these are good ways that people can track them, what they are doing and what they are up to,” Giacalone told CBS2.
The City Council has limited power to reform the summons system, which is overseen by the state courts. But de Blasio, a Democrat, and some of the city’s district attorneys have also called for efforts to relieve the backlog in the city’s courts. There are 1.5 million open warrants.MORE NEWS: Caught On Video: Carmine's Hostess Attacked After Asking Tourists For Proof Of Vaccination
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