Press Releases

Rikers Island Must Be Closed

The New York City Bar Association and its Task Force on Mass Incarceration (collectively, the “City Bar”) support closing the correctional facilities on Rikers Island.  We have reviewed the reports issued by the Lippman Commission and Mayor Bill de Blasio and together they make a compelling and urgent case in support of closing Rikers.  While they differ in some respects in their emphasis on particular strategies and timelines to accomplish this goal, both reports are quite clear on the benefits to be realized − and the fiscal and human costs to be avoided − once Rikers is closed.[1]  We are encouraged by Mayor de Blasio’s recent announcements on the planned closure of one of the jails at Rikers and on the future siting of four new jail facilities.[2]  Governor Andrew Cuomo has also publicly supported the closing of Rikers.[3]  This is good progress, and we urge our elected leaders, government officials and all involved stakeholders to work together to close the remaining Rikers jails as quickly and expeditiously as possible.

It is worth noting that New York City has made enormous progress in reducing its jail population by over 50% over the past two decades, which we recognize and applaud.[4]  Equally laudable is the fact that this reduction was realized while substantially reducing the crime rate in New York at the same time.  We are confident that closing Rikers will not undermine that achievement.  There are numerous reasons why the closure of Rikers is so critical. First, and perhaps most importantly, closing Rikers represents a huge step towards our goal of reducing the population of incarcerated individuals in New York.  On an average day in Fiscal Year 2017, there were over 9,000 people incarcerated in city jails.[5]  More than three-quarters of the people held at Rikers were simply waiting for their cases to be tried, most because they could not afford bail.[6]  Ninety percent were people of color.[7]  We cannot continue to tolerate incarceration that is due solely to poverty and that is so racially disproportionate.

There are many other aspects of Rikers that make its closure a top priority for New York.  High rates of violence have been documented in numerous reports and have increased over the past several years.[8]  The widespread violence affects all aspects of the daily lives of those who work there as well as those who are held there.  In addition, Rikers’ facilities and design are woefully antiquated and unsafe.  The conditions for incarcerated individuals are deplorable and negatively impact both detainees and staff.[9]  The poor layout encourages bad behavior and exacerbates problems, such as poor physical and mental health.[10]  Moreover, the very location of Rikers − on an island in the East River that is isolated and difficult to access − impedes the fair and efficient administration of justice.  The location has a negative impact on the individuals most directly affected and the justice system as a whole, including:  payment of bail; meetings with lawyers; the ability to connect with family members and loved ones; and traveling to and from court on time.[11]  The difficulty in getting to Rikers deters family members from visiting.  Indeed, in 2017, the visitation rate at Rikers was roughly half that at the borough facilities.[12]  In short, Rikers seems to be a living symbol of just about everything that can go wrong in a penal system.

Finally, the current fiscal cost of incarcerating an individual in a city jail is now approximately $270,876 a year, or $742 a day.[13]  If no changes are made, the burden on New York City taxpayers will be almost $2.4 billion in fiscal year 2018.[14]  Put simply, the costs of maintaining Rikers and the existing system are staggering.  We recognize that any plan will require the building of alternative facilities.  However, building new facilities presents an opportunity to re-think design so as to provide for increased safety, a healthier environment for detainees and staff, and more on-site programming, such as mental health, job training and reentry services.  It is clear that any investment now will result in significant financial savings as the number of incarcerated individuals declines and the system operates more fairly, humanely and efficiently.

Closing Rikers is the right thing to do and the pivotal next step for New York City in its continuing efforts to lower the incarceration rate and bring our criminal justice system and its detention facilities into the 21st century.  We urge all of our elected representatives and those in government to publicly commit to closing Rikers as expeditiously as possible and to agree on a reasonable timetable for accomplishing this goal.

John F. Savarese                                                                     
Task Force on Mass Incarceration                                          

John S. Kiernan
New York City Bar Association*

April 2018

[1] Hon. Jonathan Lippman, Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, Rethinking Rikers Island, A More Just NYC (July 13, 2016), [“Lippman Commission Report”]; Office of the Mayor of New York, Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island (June 22, 2017), [“Mayor’s Report”] (all websites last visited April 2, 2018).

[2] William Neuman, Mayor and Council Agree on New Jail Sites to Replace Rikers Island, New York Times (Feb. 14, 2018),;  Press Release, Office of the Mayor, New York City to Close First Jail on Rikers Island by Summer 2018 (Jan. 2, 2018),  Press reports indicate apparent – and welcome – agreement between the New York City Council and the Governor’s Office with respect to the use of “design-build” methods to more expeditiously construct the new facilities.  See Press Release, Office of the Governor, Statement from Counsel to the Governor Alphonso David (Feb. 14, 2018),  The City Bar, through its Construction Law Committee, has long supported the enactment of modern construction procurement laws in New York State and has supported legislation which authorizes New York City’s use of the design-build service delivery methodology for specified projects.  See, e.g., Report Supporting the Authorization of Design-Build for New York City Public Projects (June 2017),  

[3] Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, 2018 State of the State (Jan. 3, 2018), at 57, See also Press Release, Office of the Governor, Governor Cuomo Announces Highlights of the FY 2019 Budget (Mar. 30, 2018), (noting that the 2018-19 State Budget includes design-build legislation “to expedite construction of new jails to replace the Rikers Island Jail Complex.”).   

[4] New York City continues to have the lowest incarceration rate of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., as its jail population has dropped by half in the last 20 years and by 14% in the past two years.  See Press Release, Office of the Mayor, Mayor de Blasio Announces City Jail Population is Below 9,000 for the First Time in 35 Years (Dec. 27, 2017) [“Mayor’s Press Release on Jail Population”],; Mayor’s Report at 13; Judith Greene & Vincent Schiraldi, Better by Half: The New York City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration While Increasing Public Safety, 26 Federal Sentencing Reporter 22 (Oct. 2016),; Lippman Commission Report at 23 (showing decrease in jail population from over 20,000 in 1991 to just over 9,000 in 2016).  In addition to reducing the number of people in jail, we recognize the City’s efforts aimed at improving conditions at Rikers while it remains in operation, in particular, moving 16 and 17 year olds off Rikers, barring solitary confinement for those under 21, and retraining corrections officers.  Lippman Commission Report at 26.

[5] Press Release, Office of the New York City Comptroller, NYC Department of Correction: FYs 2007-17 Operating Expenditures, Inmate Population, Cost Per Inmate, Staffing Ratios, Performance Measure Outcomes, And Overtime (Nov. 14, 2017), at 2 [“Comptroller’s Report”],; Mayor’s Press Release on Jail Population.

[6] Lippman Commission Report at 13.

[7] Id

[8] See Comptroller’s Report at 6-9; Lippman Commission Report at 71-75.

[9] Lippman Commission Report at 71-75.

[10] Id.  It is estimated that approximately 40% of the individuals incarcerated at Rikers are flagged for possible mental health needs.  Id. at 85.

[11] Id. at 27-28, 73-75.

[12] Id. at 28.

[13] Annual cost figures include expenses funded from outside the Dept. of Corrections budget such as pension costs and medical services. See Comptroller’s Report at 3.

[14] Lippman Commission Report at 28.


* The New York City Bar Association is a voluntary membership organization of over 24,000 lawyers and law students.  Its mission is to equip and mobilize the legal profession to practice with excellence, promote reform of the law, and uphold the rule of law and access to justice.  Through its Corrections and Community Reentry Committee, City Bar members and leaders have been afforded a high level of access to Rikers and have toured the facility on a number of occasions, meeting with guards, doctors, people running programs, as well as the people incarcerated there.  These visits have helped to inform the understanding and the thinking of City Bar members involved in this area of work. 

The Task Force on Mass Incarceration was established in 2015 under the leadership of John F. Savarese to examine ways to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.  In a series of reports and letters, the Task Force has urged federal, state and city leaders to make the reduction of mass incarceration a top priority and to (i) repeal or reduce mandatory minimum sentencing provisions; (ii) reduce the sentences recommended by sentencing guidelines and similar laws for non-violent offenses; (iii) expand the sentencing alternatives to prison including drug programs, mental health programs and job training programs; and, in cases of incarceration, expand the availability of rehabilitative services, including counseling and educational opportunities, during and following incarceration so that individuals can successfully reenter society and avoid recidivism; (iv) eliminate or reduce financial conditions of pretrial release; and (v) provide opportunities for individuals with misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions to seal those records to prevent employment and other discrimination.  To view the work of the Task Force on Mass Incarceration, go to: