Prison Reform
De Blasio’s Clean Up of Rikers Starts Working

NY Mayor Bill de Blasio is doing something worthwhile: working to clean up the infamous Rikers Island. Progress has been very slow going, according to the NYT:

A little over a year after hiring one of the country’s leading correction professionals to be commissioner, allotting tens of millions of dollars in additional funding and making jail reform a top political priority, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio can say with confidence that its plan to reduce violence at one of [Rikers’] many jails, housing 179 adolescents, has worked. For five months now.

That leaves 13 jails, with 10,000 inmates, to go.

“It’s a long, heavy lift here,” Joseph Ponte, the New York City correction commissioner, said in an interview last month. “So it’s going to be some time.”

Despite a marked effort by the de Blasio administration to remake Rikers, progress has come haltingly. Officials now acknowledge that dysfunction is so deeply embedded in the jail culture that, if the mayor is serious about turning things around, he would need to work at it until the very day he leaves office.

Jails and prisons in much of the country are in terrible shape, and NY’s Rikers Island is a disaster. Mayor DeBlasio may not succeed in fixing things, as the problems are extremely difficult, but he’s to be commended for making a major push. The incarceration system, like health care, policing and public schools is one of those systems central to American life in the 21st century that just doesn’t work. We shovel money into the system, and it brutalizes inmates (or allows them to brutalize one another) and imposes extraordinary costs on the lives of individuals and communities as well as on taxpayers for results that are well short of what we need.

Worse are the jails in which people not convicted of crimes moulder while waiting for trial. Prisons paradoxically often have better facilities and programs than jails. The legal system—slow, cumbersome, not very good at dispensing thoughtful justice to many of the defendants caught in its coils—is the cause of much of the trouble in the city’s (and the country’s) jails.

As is often the case, public sector labor unions that make management next to impossible and impose unsustainable costs are partly to blame, but the problem of American prisons has deeper roots than that. The model of longterm incarceration as society’s go-to remedy for illegal behavior has serious flaws. We badly need alternative approaches here—but these will only be found gradually.

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