Home News How to slow the flow of people to Rikers Island

How to slow the flow of people to Rikers Island

In the next few months, control of the jail system on Rikers Island may be placed under the control of a court-ordered independent authority. Mayor Adams argues that this will throw the jail into chaos while the U.S. attorney and Legal Aid Society contend it’s the only way to improve the system. At the same time, we recently learned that the much-needed, planned closure of Rikers is behind schedule.

Managing and closing Rikers are complex issues, and the crisis surrounding both will continue unless we turn off the spigot. The Rikers population increased slightly last year with the city expecting around 7,000 people to be detained at the jail complex this year (the four planned borough jails are only designed for 3,300 people).

We still send too many people from a handful of city neighborhoods to Rikers. Stem that pipeline and then managing and closing Rikers will become much easier.

I serve on the Commission on Community Reinvestment and the Closure of Rikers Island, which was created to recommend equitable reinvestment of savings from the closure of Rikers for justice-involved and justice-impacted communities. The commission found five overarching drivers of incarceration: systemic racism, policing, criminalization, poverty, and mental health/substance use disorders.

Nearly half of the people in prison are from a small number of communities. That’s not a coincidence, nor is it surprising. It is by design. We have disinvested in those communities. Youth in those communities get a worse education; housing is more likely to be inhumane; life expectancy is shorter and timely health and mental health services are too often out of reach; poverty is higher and employment rates lower.

If you are from one of these neighborhoods, you are 4,700% more likely to be incarcerated as compared with someone who is from a community with virtually none of these issues.

The mayor already has taken steps to address community disparities and increase supports that stem the jail pipeline, but more must be done.

In its proposed budget, the City Council has adopted two investments advanced by criminal justice advocates, including Justice Impacted Supportive Housing (JISH) and mental health services in our communities. These are two common-sense investments that should be included in the coming fiscal year’s budget, but it’s not enough.

I suggest we focus on our young people who are likely, but not yet, justice-involved. In particular, we should do more to support young people who are in or have aged out of foster care. Data shows that people who spent time in foster care are disproportionally represented in prison: they account for only 5% of the population, but 20% of our prison population.

Most importantly, there is a need for increased access to housing opportunities for foster youth. Homelessness rates among young people aging out of foster care are high and, not surprisingly, there is a correlation between housing insecurity and criminal justice involvement. Therefore, we need to fund more housing for young adults coming out of foster care to prevent justice system involvement or ameliorate past involvement.

The Children’s Village, the humanitarian organization that I run, will soon open a new multi-use development that includes a new public library, community center and 174 apartments in Inwood, with 15% of the apartments set aside for people coming out of shelter. But that’s a drop in the bucket.

These young people, many with histories of serious trauma, also need dependable access to mental health services. Recognizing that the stigma surrounding mental health treatment is high, the commission recommended co-locating physical, mental health, and substance use treatment services. It also recommended providing 24/7 mental health and addiction crisis treatment services to meet the around-the-clock needs of those who need it.

As those of us serving children touched by child welfare and anyone with a teenager, well know, young people are much more likely to need mental health support late at night and our current systems are simply not set up to meet their needs.

The Commission on Community Reinvestment and the Closure of Rikers Island made many additional recommendations to reduce incarceration rates, influence new fairer policies and strategies, and co-create communities in ways that are restorative, healing and just. Regardless of receivership or restructuring, the goal should be to create a society where we can support more people so they do not wind up in places like Rikers.

 Kohomban is the president and CEO of The Children’s Village.


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