The Rikers Island complex consists of ten jails.
The Rikers Island complex consists of ten jails. (Tim Bodenberg/Flickr CC)

The commission calling for the closure of New York City’s sprawling jail complex on Rikers Island said meaningful reforms to criminal justice in the city should include changes in the courts, including expedited handling of cases and additional diversion programs.

In a 146-page report released Friday afternoon, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform recommended closing down Rikers and establishing local jail facilities in each of the city’s five boroughs.

“We must replace our current model of mass incarceration with something that is more effective and more humane—state-of-the-art facilities located closer to where the courts are located in civic centers in each borough,” said commission chair Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals who is now of counsel to Latham & Watkins, in a foreword contained in the report.

The 27-member commission includes legal leaders including Seymour James, attorney-in-charge for the New York City Legal Aid Society; Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic, administrative judge for criminal matters; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Mylan Denerstein; Robert Fisk, senior counsel for Davis, Polk & Wardwell; Jeanette Ruiz, administrative judge of the Manhattan Family Court; and Proskauer Rose partner Peter Samuels.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed support for plans to close Rikers in the next several years.

With respect to reforms to the court, the commission recommended:

Alternatives to Incarceration

The commission said the city should divert some low-level misdemeanors, including minor drug possession cases, from the court system by sending some offenders to service providers that could recommend community restitution instead of jail. It said the city also could divert 111,000 misdemeanors annually by sending low-level offenders to summons court instead of criminal court.

Additionally, the commission said, the city should look to eliminate short jail sentences and replace sentences of 30 days or less with community-based alternatives.

For its part, the report stated, the city has implemented recent reforms to divert defendants from jail, including a program in which nonviolent offenders are released to community supervision rather than placed behind bars.

In the last 10 months, the program has had more than 2,400 intakes, the report stated. Participants are required to check in by phone or in-person and are linked up with voluntary services.

Bail Reform

For starters, money bail should be eliminated, the commission recommended. Nine out of 10 defendants are unable to pay in time to avoid a stint in jail, and thus the city should use pretreat supervision for defendants that includes rigorous monitoring and access to services. Eliminating money bail requires changes to state law, the report said.

The report noted that the New York City Council has committed to investing $1.4 million in a charitable bail fund that will be launched this year.

Expedited Handling of Cases

The commission said felonies should be resolved within six months and misdemeanors within 90 days. Currently, the report stated, about 70 percent of indicted felonies— which account for almost half of the prisoners in city jails—are resolved in less than a year.

The commission also recommended that the parties in criminal cases expedite discovery and “engage in meaningful plea bargaining as soon as possible.”

But Michael Farkas, immediate past president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, expressed concerns about placing the burden on defendants to speed up court operations, saying that the court system could work through caseloads faster by investing in more judges and more court officers.

“The answer is not putting more pressure on defendants to plead guilty,” Farkas said.

But the commission also recommended steps for prosecutors to take that could help with reforms, including leaving their “best offer” plea deals on the table at least one month after discovery is complete, as making plea deals closer to trial may encourage defense attorneys to seek additional time.

The commission said prosecutors also should receive training to recognize inherent biases and that district attorneys’ offices should regularly review their practices to “identify potential racial and ethnic disparities.”