Law & the Courts

Jails Exist for a Reason

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tours the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at Rikers Island in 2015. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Anti-prison activists propagate a fatally flawed understanding of justice.

Four years ago, an NYPD officer was shot and killed by a serial drug dealer who had been released on bail. Mayor Bill de Blasio, outraged, called for the New York state legislature to set tougher criteria for alternatives to incarceration. Since then, a growing chorus of anti-prison activists have cited stories of carceral abuse to gain support for closing the city’s Rikers Island jail, and de Blasio has changed his tune to match theirs. He’s now closing Rikers and taking steps to forcibly reduce New York’s daily jail population by 4,000 people.

In capping the number of suspects the city can detain, de Blasio has bought into an argument that trades inmate safety for public safety. This is a false choice: There’s no reason we can’t have both. Rikers should be reformed, not closed. Neither City Hall nor No New Jails, NYC’s resident anti-prison group, has a good explanation for rejecting such a compromise.

When de Blasio first proposed closing Rikers, he met fierce backlash — not because advocates didn’t want Rikers closed, but because they opposed his plan to spend $11 billion to build a new jail in the Bronx while renovating four existing jails in the city. This would have reduced the maximum capacity of the city’s jails from 20,000 to 5,000, in accord with projections that the daily jail population would reduce from 7,000 to 5,000 by 2026. But when Bronx congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez met publicly with No New Jails and condemned de Blasio’s plan, his office changed tack, reducing the expected daily jail population to 3,300.

De Blasio, then, seems to be taking cues from a group that advances an idea of justice that privileges the interests of the incarcerated at the expense of the rest of society. Its manifesto downplays criminals’ responsibility to pay restitution and denies the endless news reports of suspected criminals breaking bail: “It is easy to pretend that jails exist because the people held there are too dangerous to be released. That idea is a myth.”

No New Jails may think incarcerating violent criminals is somehow unjust — whether or not they regret their crimes, and whether or not they’ve paid appropriate restitution. By refusing to draw such distinctions, though, No New Jails ignores the hard reality that some detainees genuinely do pose a threat to society.

Even ex-convicts, after they’ve been rehabilitated, will admit the need for the carceral system.

“If you can be arrested once and never commit crimes again, then God bless you. But that wasn’t the case for me or most people,” Gustavo Weismann, a former inmate at Rikers, told National Review.

At 43 years old, Weismann, who goes by Gus, has been incarcerated for theft 23 times. Like Gus, 42.6 percent of all convicted felons in New York City have been rearrested for committing another crime. Contrary to the No New Jails narrative, some don’t feel any remorse, which is why Pastor Jose Negron, who runs the prison-ministry program at Rikers, is very selective about the people he admits into the program.

“During the interview process, I ask them if there’s one thing they could go back and change, what would it be? That usually opens up the conversation to see if they feel any remorse for anything in their past,” Negron told National Review.

Even though Gus stole for decades, Negron could see that he finally regretted his past, so he admitted Gus into the program. Then, for twelve weeks, Gus took classes in ethics, job skills, and authentic masculinity. “Thursday nights were my favorite. That’s when we’d get together as guys and talk about guy issues; what it’s like to be a man navigating the world,” said Gus.

According to Negron, far too many inmates come from broken families and couldn’t rely on the example of male figures in their childhood. This resonated with Gus — yet rather than claim victimization, he takes full responsibility for the crimes he’s committed. While he described Rikers as the worst prison he’s ever been in, he’s thankful that he eventually reformed. Similar programs are available outside of prison, but some ex-convicts say they wouldn’t have participated in them if they hadn’t been incarcerated.

Anti-prison advocates often point to stories of abuse to argue that incarceration is inherently unjust. And to be sure, Rikers is notorious for its mistreatment of prisoners. But recognizing and opposing such abuse doesn’t require opposing prisons themselves — nor does it require adopting de Blasio’s plan to cut the daily prison population by such a large number. As Seth Barron, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, explains, the premises behind the plan are simply at odds with reality:

Decriminalization of quality-of-life offenses and the elimination of cash bail for most misdemeanors and many felonies are indeed expected to reduce the jailed population — but even so, the new 3,300 target will likely require a significant realignment of expectations about public safety. The number of people in jail in New York City is already historically low, due to concerted efforts to divert low-level offenders into incarceration alternatives. The remaining incarcerated population largely represents a core group of hardened, violent, habitual criminals. The city’s own numbers demonstrate that virtually no one is in jail for marijuana possession, prostitution, or jumping subway turnstiles.

Surely tailoring jail-population estimates to appease prison abolitionists will not reduce the number of dangerous criminals. “In 35 of the city’s 75 precincts, shootings are up. Many of the city’s most serious crimes are already committed by criminals on probation, parole, or who have pending cases,” Manhattan Institute scholar Rafael Mangual argued recently.

Yet for No New Jails, de Blasio’s plan doesn’t go far enough. The way they see it, any incarceration is tantamount to state-sponsored slavery, because the money used for incarceration should have been used for social programs that help at-risk youth.

“They want to spend 11 billion of our taxpaying dollars? You know what 1 billion could do in our city? They’re not gonna spend half of that in prevention,” Akeem Browder, an activist with No New Jails, told National Review. “They fund millions of dollars in reentry, but not alternatives to incarceration.”

As for Rikers, Browder believes it can’t be reformed because “the word ‘reform’ insinuates we can fix — but the system is not broken, it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. The system is designed to incarcerate black and brown communities.” But when pressed on whether it’s okay to detain people who are likely to commit crimes, Browder said, “People that need to be detained are mentally ill, they’re people with a grudge or anger issues and they’re still treatable offenses. They should be taken away from the community so they’re not a threat to society, but we already have other jails in the city.”

The notion that the system is intentionally designed to oppress minorities, however, deeply conflicts with believing that any good can come out of it. And while Browder is predisposed to thinking most, if not all, criminals are mentally ill, that’s not how Gus saw himself. He decided whether to commit crimes through a cost-benefit analysis: What was the risk, what was the potential reward, and what could he lose. The only reason he initially decided to join Pastor Jose’s program was because he felt he was too old to live a life of crime, and because he knew he’d be moved to a nicer cell if he did the program.

It’s simply naïve and counterfactual to believe everyone would mend their ways after their first time in prison. Therefore, and given that 95 percent of state prisoners will someday be released, a better measure to evaluate our criminal-justice system is the number of people who give up crime. This wisdom has largely guided our approach to criminal justice, going all the way back to our founding.

All jails should emulate Prison Fellowship’s ministry at Riker’s, which offers a safe and effective model of reform. In fact, a 2013 study of recidivism rates for people who had completed their Texas year-long intensive “prison academy” proved it works. Of 109 graduates who were followed by researchers over a three-year period, only nine returned to prison. Over a five-year period, “the average across the country is as high as two-thirds,” James Ackerman, the president of Prison Fellowship, told National Review.

For some, incarceration must come before rehabilitation. De Blasio’s plan would put suspects back on the streets before they’ve been convicted and rehabilitated. That sends a dangerous message — that the victim card is a get-out-of-jail-free card. If the mayor really wants to help prisoners while ensuring the public safety, that funding should be used for processing cases more quickly and ensuring that prisoners are treated right — not abolishing Rikers.

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