Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Closing the Pipeline that Feeds the Disaster of Rikers

Mayor Adams makes a youth employment announcement (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

As people who are deeply involved in our communities, we are the first to understand the value of safety and peace. We have lost loved ones to gun violence and crime, and have lived through the failed policies of over-policing. We acknowledge the rapid increase of both of these since May 2020, two months after the lockdowns that shut down our flourishing communities. The lockdowns have caused a documented increase in addiction, suicide, mental health distress, learning loss, and economic turmoil, all of which must be acknowledged as drivers of the recent increase in violence.  

History shows that we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way to public safety. We can no longer tolerate a city budget that reflects this false notion. With the release of the mayor’s executive budget proposal, it is clear that we have work to do before this year’s budget deadline to move in the right direction.   

Mayor Adams has frequently noted the need to invest in upstream solutions to community safety, and his executive budget shows progress toward that goal. For example, we applaud Mayor Adams’ efforts to address dyslexia among New York City students and support alternative forms of violence intervention through the city’s Crisis Management System. However, the budget also shows an increase in the Department of Correction uniformed headcount of 578 in the year ahead, increasing DOC’s budget to $2.74 billion.  

The Department of Correction has historically been a wildly bloated and inefficient institution and is now the nation's most expensive and richly-staffed jail system, while failing to keep people in its custody alive. The distressed correctional system existed long before the current administration took office, but Mayor Adams has a unique opportunity to address its shortcomings and increase investments in transformative solutions that have proven to uplift communities. A budget increase for DOC is also out of step with the overall trend in the jail population. New York City’s average daily jail population fell 61% from 2011 to 2021, but instead of the DOC budget being reduced by the same amount, it grew by 20%.       

Just as important, an increase in the DOC budget is out of alignment with what our communities really need to foster public safety, and what was envisioned by the Commission on Community Reinvestment and the Closure of Rikers, established by City Council’s Local Law 193 in 2019.   

The tragedy of investing in incarceration versus real solutions is especially vivid when we look at how young people in marginalized communities are served by the city budget. As of May 1, there were 1,258 young people ages 18-25 incarcerated in New York City jails. At an astronomical annual cost per incarcerated person of $556,539, New York City will spend approximately $700 million to jail these young people at Rikers for one year, while exposing them to violence and trauma that will increase rather than decrease their likelihood of future arrest.  

Let’s consider what $700 million could do to support small businesses, increase employment rates, comprehensively address staggering literacy deficiencies, and provide weekend and evening community recreational programming so that our communities can begin recovering from the effects of the last two pandemic years. Notably, the mayor’s budget did not include funding requested by the City Council to further expand summer youth employment, the Saturday Night Lights Program, or the housing for runaway and homeless youth, and the budget for the Department of Youth and Community Development is set to shrink by $86.9 million overall.   

Our own experiences illustrate how much more impactful alternatives to arrest and incarceration can be.  As a young person, I, Darren, had experience with potential gun violence. Walking home from junior high school with two of my classmates one day, we were jumped by a group of older teenagers. I was scared, confused, and angry. Due to my personal horrible experience with the police, calling them for protection was not an option for me. The next two days, I carried a gun to school with me.    

Luckily, I neither saw the older teens nor was I stopped by the police. Yes, my arrest would have removed that weapon from the streets. But it would not have solved the underlying conflict and cycles of aggression, protection, and retaliation I was getting caught up in. Even incarcerating all the young people involved would not solve the problem, since conflicts in the streets often carry into jail and prison. And in a horrible cycle, conflicts in jails and prisons carry back into the communities we aim to keep safe.   

The good news is that there are alternatives. A credible messenger acting as a mediator could have ultimately resolved that issue and deterred me from causing more harm in a way that law enforcement could not have. Again we applaud the City’s increased investments in credible messenger models, but more funding is needed to support these programs’ expansion into more areas, including schools, and to give their practitioners adequate salaries to reflect the difficult and round-the-clock work these skilled professionals are engaging in.   

The effectiveness of this model has been proven by organizations like BronxConnect, which I, Wendy, have the honor of leading. Since its inception, BronxConnect has understood the need for credible messengers to bridge the gap for youth in danger of incarceration or rearrest.

We have recruited staff and mentors from the community whose backgrounds mirror participants' life experiences. Over 25% of BronxConnect staff are incarceration survivors, which allows them to develop rapport with justice- and violence-impacted populations. Over 90% of youth in our alternative-to-detention programs have remained free from arrest and remand, while 97% of successful graduates of the alternative-to-incarceration (ATI) program were felony conviction-free for at least three years.

Over BronxConnect’s time as a funded Cure Violence provider, we have seen a 52% reduction in shootings and no homicides in our catchment area. Our work has shown that safety and justice are not two mutually-exclusive outcomes. We can achieve both. The answer to gun violence in our communities cannot just be more police. If we want to advance public safety in our communities then we need to invest in our youth and the programs that help them succeed, and we need to commit to addressing the root causes of violence.     

A budget is a moral document — it shows who and what we value. New York City, the greatest city in the world, needs a budget that reflects our investment in communities, small businesses, and the potential of all young people. This will produce true community safety. Everyone wants and deserves to live in a safe community.  

Darren Mack is the Co-Director of Freedom Agenda and Co-Chair of the Youth SubCommittee of the Commission on Community Reinvestment and the Closure of Rikers. Reverend Wendy Calderon-Payne is the Executive Director of BronxConnect. Freedom Agenda and BronxConnect are among those leading the Campaign to Close Rikers. On Twitter @iamdarrenmack & @BronxConnect.

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