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Citizens Union


You’ll be surprised about one of the most expensive residential neighborhoods in New York. The average Manhattan studio apartment rents for about $1,953 a month according to a recent survey, but in this area it’s over $13,977.

Even in ultra-expensive New York City, you’d figure a building that costs an average $167,000 annually per person for a small “studio” and amenities has to be luxuriously swanky – but not so much. And it’s not on the Upper East Side, Midtown or even in Robert DeNiro’s trendy TriBeca. It’s more exclusive in some ways. It’s part of the Bronx but located on a 400-plus acre island on the East River.

That’d be Rikers Island, home to New York City’s biggest and most infamous jails complex.

Despite the island setting, it doesn’t offer much in the way of river views. The “studio” units are small, Spartan and offer little privacy. The building staff-to-tenant ratio, though, is amazing.

Last month, the city’s Independent Budget Office issued a brief report on the jail’s cost. On any given day it houses about 12,287 at an annual cost of $167,731 per inmate for a total of over $2 billion annually. About 93 percent of the guests are male; 57 percent black; 33 percent Hispanic, 7 percent white and 1 percent Asian.

“Budgets are moral documents” wrote Rev. Peg Chamberlin in the National Catholic Reporter recently. She was writing about a national budget gifting $10.17 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to highly profitable coal and gas companies while slashing billions to the country’s neediest by cutting safety net programs.

She could have been writing about spending $2 billion on jails while cutting food stamps and affordable housing programs, and condemning more than 50,000 people — four times more than are in Rikers — to homeless shelters daily.

The per inmate spending is extraordinary – far above any benchmark average for prisons or jails. Sometimes it’s difficult to translate a reduction in inmates to the per inmate cost, because the jail continues to operate with all the overhead costs involved. But Rikers is really a collection of jails in 10 buildings; eliminating whole sections or closing whole buildings would significantly reduce costs while still keeping a city jail system operating.

There are ways to reduce the jail population that would garner substantial public support. Like many jails, lots of the inmates are there awaiting trial. They haven’t been convicted of anything except being too poor to post bail. At Rikers, the “unconvicted” account for three-quarters of the population.

New York is one of only two states that automatically treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system. You really don’t want to know the other state (ok, it’s North Carolina). So 7 percent of Rikers inmates are 16 or 17 years old, in itself a questionable practice.

There’s also the issue of incarcerating nonviolent or first-time offenses. On any given day there might be 2,300 inmates at Rikers on drug charges; up to 100 on prostitution or loitering; and perhaps another 1,200 or more for other misdemeanors.

The operation of the jail isn’t without controversy. Rikers has a history of brutal violence and deaths. At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed arising from that history claiming guards used inmates as enforcers to maintain discipline or even for extortion. That's given rise to criminal charges and more than a few legal settlements. Some of the suits are still pending.

In terms of a standard metric for jails, Rikers has a high recidivism rate.

Let’s suppose the inmate population could be reduced by 1,000 and the cost by $167,000,000. What could that money do?

Many poor people in New York (last week the Census Bureau said NYC’s poverty rate jumped from 20.9 percent to 21.2 percent, translating to almost 1.8 million officially below the poverty threshold) still have little or no access to appropriate ongoing medical treatment and related services.

High-quality primary health care for people experiencing homelessness, who typically have multiple chronic health diagnosis, can be delivered for $190 a visit. A typical emergency room visit costs over $2,100. One hundred and sixty seven million dollars could provide 878,000 medical visits for poor people. That’s without adjusting for savings from unreimbursed emergency room visits and unnecessary hospitalizations avoided.

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New York City has over 3,800 homeless youth but provides only 250 beds for them. Even if beds were as expensive as adult beds we could provide the extra 3,550 beds with more than $150 million left.

New York’s homeless shelter population has exploded since the elimination of rental subsidies to assist families move from shelter to permanent housing. Reinstituting the rental subsidy, a program that, despite all its faults, never cost more than about $1,000 a month per family, might move over 8,300 families into housing with $67 million left over. And that’s not considering either better outcomes and greater productivity of families that would be stably housed or the tax dollar savings from reducing the homeless shelter population where it costs $3,000 a month for shelter and services.

Imagine how far a share of that savings could go in needed expansion of our mental health services or drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs. Like the housing programs, it’s not inexpensive but the investment cost usually results in a major savings over time in avoided tragedies, greater productivity and less spending on emergency rooms, police and jail.

Care for the Homeless Executive Director Bobby Watts noted you could send three students to Harvard for what we’re spending on one inmate. The Blinker website claims we’ll pay more to house alleged drug offenders at Rikers a year than on all the New Yorkers in public housing. Food stamps cost around $1.50 per meal, so $167 million pays for 111,333,333 meals.

Good health policies, housing programs and the availability of treatment for those who need it don’t just produce better outcomes, they save money over time. It’s surely a more productive use of public resources than paying for jail, especially at a Rikers Island price.

Jeff Foreman is Director of Policy at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter @JeffForeman2.

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