We are witnessing in real time the downfall of a once-great city by rigid political ideologues who are more concerned about protecting criminals than victims. Rikers Island, with a capacity of 15,000 and currently housing a historically low 7,500 inmates, is being replaced by four neighborhood prisons that shockingly will have a maximum capacity of 3,300 in 2026 when the city population is expected to exceed 8.5 million people. Yes, in a city of 8.5 million people, we will have jail capacity for only 3,300. The last time NYC had 3,300 inmates was in 1920, when the population was much smaller. The vote to close Rikers was overwhelmingly approved by Council members who will surely be re-elected by voters who know more about their members’ next Rain Barrel Giveaway than their voting records.
With insufficient prison space, courts will be forced to release dangerous felons back into the community and police will be encouraged to make fewer arrests and abandon proactive policing. That is already happening in our city. In order to accommodate the closing of Rikers, it will be necessary to shrink the current prison population by 59 percent, or 5,000 inmates. Ask yourself if your family asked your Council member to close Rikers, spend $8.7 billion to build a neighborhood prison system that can only accommodate 3,300 and release 5,000 inmates back into our community. Unless your Council member is Bob Holden, every other Queens member voted to do just that. To most community leaders, this is just incomprehensible and crazy. Civic associations in the Queens neighborhood where one of the new neighborhood jails is slated to be built vociferously opposed the plan. That opposition didn’t stop Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, who represents that community, from voting in favor of it.
Just a small uptick in crime will mean more jail space will be necessary, but the city has made no contingency plan to increase capacity. To make matters worse, the current City Council prohibited future use of Rikers as a prison after 2026, long after these members have moved on. A breakdown in civil society is becoming evident to most civic leaders and others who follow the news. We witness this breakdown almost daily in our subways and in the growing number of encampments on city streets — all a harbinger of things to come and your Council member has left our city alarmingly unprepared. Inevitably and long after these members are gone, horrendous community battles will ensue as the city will be pressed to create even more neighborhood jails in your community.
To make matters worse, the NYS Legislature has just ended cash bail effective Jan. 1. Bail exists to ensure those charged in a crime return to court and in many jurisdictions to give judges the ability to protect vulnerable communities by considering the dangers an individual poses to the community by holding dangerous individuals on pretrial bail detention. The Legislature has denied judges this tool, which means dangerous repeat offenders with multiple arrests and prior convictions will remain on the streets. Make no mistake about it, these laws protect criminals at the expense of their victims. Proponents of ending pretrial bail, such as Councilman Donovan Richards, insist that violent offenders can still be held on bail. Unfortunately, that’s illusory, not reality. Violent crimes such as burglary, robbery and manslaughter in the second degree, along with drug possession with the intent to sell, will all now require mandatory release. Burglary 2 is when a person forcibly enters your home to commit a crime, and robbery 2 is when a person forcibly steals from you in a face-to-face confrontation. In both instances, the arrested individual cannot be held and must be released back on the street. Political correctness has also run amok in this legislation. Arrested individuals, formerly known as “defendants,” will now be called “principals.” And in a macabre twist to the rules of evidence, these “principals” with their defense attorneys can seek a court order giving them the right to visit, inspect and record the crime scene. Imagine that you’ve been the victim of a crime, and you learn that you must allow the accused back onto your property so they can build their case against you. Being victimized twice is an unforgivable consequence of this law.
The dysfunctional NYS Legislature passed this bill as part of the budgetary process, which means when members voted for the budget they voted for the bill and did so without “leaving fingerprints.”
As police are forced to make fewer arrests and fewer perpetrators are sent to jail, legislators will tout this as “crime reduction” and boast about reduced incarceration rates. How does such a lack of responsiveness by elected representatives happen? A toxic combination of one-party rule that lacks accountability, low voter turnout and voters casting their votes on name recognition instead of issue awareness. In such a scenario, politicians fear no retribution and are emboldened to chase their costly utopian ideological visions while the rest of us suffer the consequences.
Bob Friedrich is President of Glen Oaks Village, a civic leader and a former City Council candidate.