The Left Loses Its Mind in Jails Debate

Ideas have consequences and yesterday in New York City arrived more evidence that progressive forces in Gotham have lost their collective mind. The New York City Council voted to close the 400-acre Rikers Island jail complex. Keeping violent criminals off the streets? Future crime waves? Never mind, they’ll figure that out later.

Rikers is a hellhole with a long history of human-rights abuses. Serious reform is needed. But that’s not what the radical Left is looking for. New York is in the vanguard of a national “Abolish Prisons” movement. All prisons must be done away with.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is on the bandwagon. “Mass incarceration did not begin in New York City,” he declared recently, “but it will end here.”

Radical chic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also has signed on to prison abolition. “Mass incarceration is our American reality,” she wrote. “It is a system whose logic evolved from the same lineage as Jim Crow, American apartheid, & slavery. To end it, we have to change.”

In case you’re wondering about Ocasio-Cortez’s influence on the Left, Bernie Sanders has been touting her upcoming endorsement, slated for a rally Saturday in Queens. Rep. Ilhan Omar also endorsed Sanders this week.

Meanwhile, the jails controversy in New York is catching fire.

On Wednesday, a City Council committee set in motion a land-use change that would ban jails on Rikers after 2026. Yesterday, the full council voted. Rikers will be closed and new, smaller jails will be built in four city communities—one each in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

Rikers these days houses about 7,200 inmates, though it has capacity for many more. The four new jails would hold a total of about 3,200—roughly 800 inmates per jail.

Do the math. That leaves about 4,000 inmates currently at Rikers. What about them? Advocates for the new jails say a years-long drop in the crime rate, diversion programs, changes in arrest and sentencing practices, and new legislation will reduce the city’s jail population to around 3,200.

But the Manhattan Institute’s Rafael Mangual points to some contradictory evidence. De Blasio’s 2017 Mayor’s Management Report says the recent decline in jail population is due to his administration’s “successful efforts to divert low-risk, non-violent offenders from our jails” and notes that those “who remain [in jail] tend to be more violent and difficult to manage.”

“It does indeed seem to be the case,” Mangual writes, “that the current residents of Rikers Island are, in large part, the worst of the worst.” They’re “violent and difficult to manage,” in the words of the mayor’s own report. Mangual asks: can the Rikers population really be reduced by several thousand more “without those very inmates being left to roam the streets?”

The new jails are opposed by many in the communities where they would be built.  Residents worry about safety, violence, crime, and the disruptions that towering structures would bring to community life.

The new jails also are opposed by the prison-abolition activists—but for a different reason. “We shouldn’t be building new jails,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted earlier this month. Make that, any new jails. Ever. Imprisonment, to the abolition movement, is a racial justice issue, a civil rights fight.

The jails debate largely has been flying under the radar in New York, limited to activists and experts. But that appears to be changing. Public hearings have been heated. Local community boards have rejected plans for new jails, saying they posed unacceptable dangers. The de Blasio administration’s public reporting on the initiatives has been vague on the details and is widely viewed with mistrust.

The current spin from City Hall is this is a done deal. With this week’s votes, closing Rikers and opening four new jails is a fait accompli, says the mayor and his City Council allies. Legally, legislatively, the deed is done, the task completed.

But that’s a sham. Community action, court action, and elections can reverse decisions by the mayor and City Council. It’s more accurate to say that the fight over jails and prison abolition in New York has just begun.

Shave the situation with Occam’s Razor and a few facts stand out:

Crime is way down in New York City and jail populations have been declining. But there’s no guarantee that the trend will continue. In fact, some of the numbers have been going in the wrong direction recently, with an uptick in murders and shootings.

Arguments for keeping low-level offenders out of jail and engaged with the community have a lot of merit. But New Yorkers have justified fears of violent crime.

With its long history of brutality, corruption and mismanagement, Rikers should be shuttered. But you could do a lot with secure 400-acre site. The best idea might be to burn Rikers to the ground and start over.

More on that another day.

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Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org

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