New York City Council speaker seeks criminal justice reforms

NEW YORK (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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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