The jails on Rikers Island remain largely filled with people who have yet to be tried, and those prisoners remain overwhelmingly black and Hispanic and too poor to afford bail, according to a new report from the city’s Independent Budget Office.
The report, which was compiled at the request of City Councilmembers, outlines the cold statistics of what New York’s jail population looks like. The average daily jail population last year was 9,790, of which 78 percent were people awaiting trial. Of those pretrial detainees, 52 percent were black, 33 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent white, the report found. (New York City’s overall population in 2010 was 44 percent white, 28 percent Latino, and 25 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
The disproportionate ratio of black and brown New Yorkers locked up awaiting trial sits alongside an equally disturbing statistic: Nearly three-quarters of pretrial detainees are being held at Rikers because they were unable to post bail at arraignment and are literally behind bars because of their poverty.
Some of these people have been charged with serious crimes: 1.2 percent of them have been charged with murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter; nearly 1 percent of them have been charged with rape. But far more of them are facing relatively low-level charges: a third of them are facing misdemeanor charges. Another 15 percent have been charged with drug felonies.
Keeping these people locked up isn’t cheap, the Independent Budget Office report notes. The Department of Correction spends an average of $118,693 per year per inmate. The IBO estimated that the cost to the city of caging people too poor to pay their bail is approximately $116 million.
The transparent iniquity of a system that deprives people — still innocent in the eyes of the law — of their liberty, simply because they are too poor to buy their way out, has been a subject of public discussion for quite some time.
There’s no reason it has to be this way. Judges have the power to set forms of bail that don’t penalize poor defendants; prosecutors have the power to request bail less frequently and in lower amounts. In recent years, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice has undertaken some preliminary steps toward reducing the number of New Yorkers incarcerated for being poor.
But many criminal justice reformers want to take bolder action. Last month, a blue-ribbon commission led by Jonathan Lippman, the former top judge in New York, issued a blueprint for shutting down Rikers entirely in the next ten years, drawing down the jail population and redistributing it to smaller, more manageable jails closer to county courthouses.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been less than enthusiastic in his pursuit of this goal. It was only on the eve of the report’s release, when he risked becoming outflanked by the City Council, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and a panel of respected experts, that he called a hurried press conference to announce that he shared the fundamental goal of closing Rikers in the next ten years. Weeks afterward, he still says he hasn’t read the report and has resisted being pinned down on when he will begin the politically delicate work of building the new facilities that will be necessary if Rikers is to be closed.
The mayor’s office responded to questions about yesterday’s report with a statement touting the progress the city has made on the issue. “Since Mayor de Blasio took office, the number of people detained on bail of $2,000 or less has dropped by 36 percent,” said mayoral spokesperson Natalie Grybauskas. “We believe no one should be detained simply because they can’t afford bail, and we’ve invested in an array of strategies — including new diversion programs and efforts to make it easier to pay bail — to reduce the number of low-risk people who enter our jails.”
But some on City Council are unimpressed by the mayor’s commitment to the cause. De Blasio “has always been worried that [criminal justice reform] issues would poison his relationship with tabloids and open him up to accusations of being soft on crime and criminals,” said Councilmember Rory Lancman, who requested the IBO report. “He’s not willing to expend an ounce of political capital on real criminal justice reform because that would deplete the political capital available to him to do things he cares about more. He’s had no problem sacrificing criminal justice reform on the altar of political expediency.”
Faced with the opportunity to do more, de Blasio is hedging, Lancman said. De Blasio opposes a bill Lancman has introduced that would collect financial information from defendants so judges would know their ability to pay bail before they made decisions about setting it. And the mayor’s budget doesn’t include any significant expansion of funding for the city’s supervised-release pilot program or Alternatives to Incarceration diversion programs.
Lancman hopes the new IBO report can help break the logjam, he said. “Hopefully this will persuade the mayor to come up with an actual plan for closing Rikers.”