Author of Rikers Island Report Calls for Prison’s Closure

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Former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman outlined the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform’s findings and recommendations on Rikers Island, a jail complex he described as an “accelerator of human misery,” during a June 14 conference on mass incarceration held at Fordham Law School.

“My message is we need to close Rikers Island and we need to close it now, and we need all of your support,” Judge Lippman told the packed crowd of judges, prosecutors, legal scholars, and prison reform activists who convened at the all-day conference, Mass Incarceration: Mercy Matters. The conference was presented by the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission, named after the influential 1945 Fordham Law graduate who successfully argued the Groveland case, involving the wrongful conviction of three African-Americans, before the United States Supreme Court. The commission was established in 1991 to educate and advise decision makers in the New York Court System on issues affecting both employees and litigants of color and now comprises over 250 members of color of the New York judiciary.

Lippman’s remarks came during an afternoon panel moderated by David Udell, director of the National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) at Fordham Law, titled “The Rikers Report: Reversing the Criminalization of Poverty.” The conference also featured panels on “Mass Incarceration and the Effect on the Community” and “Prosecution of Cases, Racial Bias, and Efforts to Reform the Prison System,” the latter moderated by Fordham Law Professor Tanya K. Hernández.

Glenn E. Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA and a member of the independent commission, delivered a keynote speech in which he described his own experience in Rikers and the path that led him to his present role as a leader in the movement to close the troubled prison.

Fordham Law Dean Matthew Diller, the Hon. Richard B. Lowe III, chair of the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission, and the Hon. Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, each shared introductory remarks. Diller praised the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission’s commitment to equal justice and fairness, celebrated the life of the commission’s namesake, and spoke about Fordham’s commitment to access to justice.

In fall 2016, Diller, Lippman, and Udell launched Fordham Law School’s Access to Justice Initiative. The Rikers Report panel was the third public discussion hosted by the initiative in the past year at Fordham Law in which NCAJ has sought to highlight the web of connections that link poverty, racial justice, the civil justice system, the criminal justice system, and the access-to-justice movement.

Much of the panel’s discussion focused on the fact that innocent people are held in Rikers because they lack sufficient funds to “purchase their freedom.” The panel exchanged views over the report’s recommendations for eliminating money bail altogether, establishing charitable revolving bail funds, relying on technology to determine dangerousness, and eliminating adjournments that have caused people who can’t make bail to languish in Rikers for extended, and often open-ended, periods of time.

Lippman told the audience that he had three requests before he had accepted the position of chair of the independent commission. He asked that the commission 1) be funded privately so there was no potential claims of government interference, 2) be populated by a broad spectrum of society, and 3) could “call it the way we saw it.”

“We understood within the first six months of our operation that mass incarceration just doesn’t work,” Lippman said. “This idea of putting people out of sight and out of mind promotes a culture of violence, brutality, and inhumanity.”

The 97-page Rikers report, A More Just New York City, prompted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow in late March that he would close the jail complex. Whether Rikers closes in 10 years or much sooner ultimately depends on public officials showing some courage, Lippman stated.

Among the independent commission’s recommendations:

Basic criminal justice reform is needed to reduce the population of Rikers from around 10,000 to 5,000. This includes elimination of money bail and assurance of a speedy trial, renewed investment in youth, diversion of low-level misdemeanors from criminal courts, expansion of services for the mentally ill, and decriminalization of certain non-violent offenses.

Jails should be smaller, closer to the community, and closer to the inmates’ families. If jail populations around the city drop, then that would make it possible to house inmates in more central locations, such as a building attached to a courthouse, and hire fewer correctional officers.

Turn Rikers Island into an economic growth hub. If Rikers were closed, the island could house an extension for LaGuardia airport, have water treatment and solar power facilities, and affordable and commercial housing—all of which could create tens of thousands of jobs.

Build a memorial on Rikers Island. Such a monument would educate future generations about the brutal violence that took place there.

Fordham Law Professor Tanya Hernández moderated the day’s final panel, “Prosecution of Cases, Racial Bias, and Efforts to Reform the Criminal Justice System.” The panel included Bronx County District Attorney Darcel D. Clark, acting Kings County District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, Yale Law Professor Anna VanCleave, and Anthony J. Annucci, acting commissioner for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

—Ray Legendre

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