Gotham Gazette

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A Closer Look at the Costs, and Savings, of Closing Rikers and Building Four New Jails

rikers island jails via lippman report

Rikers Island (photo via Lippman Commission report)

Late last week, the New York City Council approved the de Blasio administration’s plan to build four new borough-based jails to replace the detention complex on Rikers Island. The plan hinges on a continued reduction in the city jail population, in large part brought on by state and city criminal justice reforms and changes in city policing. Various aspects of the costs, and potential savings, involved in shuttering the Rikers jails and opening the four new ones – from construction to Department of Correction personnel to transportation of detainees to social services – were part of the larger debate over the plan that intensified to a fever pitch just ahead of the Council’s definitive vote.

But nowhere have all the latest figures and projections been brought together in one place to truly examine what the jails plan, and its many connected pieces, like changes to treatment for some people with serious mental illnesses, might cost and save the city. As with many other city projects and plans, there are capital costs related to physical infrastructure and operational costs related to people and programs.

The cost of the construction of the four new jails was initially pegged at $11 billion, a number that has since been revised down to $8.7 billion and could see further projected reductions based on last-minute changes made to the plan through negotiations that will reduce the height of each new planned facility. That number could also increase, of course, as construction projects, especially larger ones, often come in over projections. But as much as those projected costs were used in arguing against the new jails plan, they do not factor in the money that would be needed to repair and upgrade facilities on Rikers or the several borough-based jails that are currently operational but antiquated.

The jails plan also comes with a spate of additional community investments and funding for citywide initiatives aimed at further reducing the number of individuals caught up in the criminal legal system and incarcerated in city jails, and recidivism among those who spend any time in jail and thus become more likely to return.

Also on the operational side are projected savings from an eventual reduction in Department of Correction officers and the far more limited transportation costs as detainees will be jailed closer to courthouses.

The Rikers Island closure plan was proposed in April 2017 by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann. The commission was convened by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a time when Mayor Bill de Blasio was hesitant to support such a plan. The mayor had initially called the closure of the 400-acre jail complex a “noble idea” but dismissed it as impractical. He later changed his tune, with Mark-Viverito, Lippman, and other criminal justice reform advocates all but making it impossible for him to oppose it.

The Lippman Commission estimated in its initial report that building five borough-based facilities would cost about $11 billion in capital funding. In the city’s 10-year capital budget, adopted earlier this year, the de Blasio administration allocated $8.7 billion over ten years for the four borough-based jails, one in each borough other than Staten Island. The jails in the boroughs other than the Bronx will replace existing jail facilities, including two operational and a defunct complex in Queens. The Bronx jail will help close “the barge” in that borough.

The $8.7 billion allocation marked a $7.7 billion increase in ten-year capital costs for the Department of Correction, with the administration reducing the timeline for construction by one year. “We feel confident looking at everything we know for sure that we can get the entire building effort done nine years from day one – so that will be 2026,” de Blasio said at a news conference on the release of his executive budget proposal in April of this year.

Those costs are preliminary estimates and relatively fluid. Ultimately, according to the mayor’s office, the cost of the new facilities will be determined on the basis of a competitive procurement process for design and construction. In final negotiations with the administration, the City Council also reduced the planned heights for the new buildings – the facilities in the Bronx and Queens will rise to 195 feet (about 19 floors) and the ones in Manhattan and Brooklyn will be 295 feet tall (about 29 floors) – which could further reduce the cost.

The city has yet to estimate the operational costs for the new facilities, though the smaller footprint compared to the eight jails currently operating on Rikers along with existing facilities in the boroughs is likely to lead to lower expenses. The current cost of running 11 jails across the city is about $2.7 billion for fiscal year 2020, which includes $1.36 billion in expense funding for the Department of Correction, $681 million in fringe benefits for DOC employees, $500 million for pensions, and $168 million for debt service.

The Lippman Commission approximated in a report put out this month that the new facilities could cut as much as $1.8 billion in annual operating costs from that number. Much of that is simple math. It costs about $247,000 to house an individual in a city jail for a year, according to the commission. The DOC also spends about $31 million each year to transport defendants between Rikers Island and courthouses and other appointments.

The new detention centers will be built to house around 3,300 total detainees and will hold 3,795 beds, down from the current jail population of around 7,200 and 14,000 beds across the system. The city will also reduce the number of correction officers at DOC, which the mayor has said will happen through attrition and not layoffs. That process may already be underway. According to the mayor’s office, there are currently no new incoming correction officer classes.

The 2020 fiscal year budget includes 11,816 full-time budgeted positions at DOC, down from 12,377 in the previous year. Expense funding for the agency, however was projected to increase in the outyears of the budget plan passed in June. In the 2021 fiscal year, the city estimates spending $47 million more on DOC operations and personnel (in city, state and federal funds), with that number dropping only marginally in 2022 and 2023.

The commission also looked at alternate uses for Rikers Island, including a potential expansion of LaGuardia Airport, new energy infrastructure, waste management facilities, and even a water treatment plant. Together, those could lead to about $7.5 billion in annual economic activity and create 50,000 jobs, the commission estimated, even bringing in revenue or reducing costs for other city agencies to the tune of millions. The cost to the city to develop those types of next-generation infrastructure projects would range from $15 billion to $22 billion.

The building of four new jails alone will directly create about 7,800 construction jobs over seven years, according to the Lippman Commission.

As part of the final deal ahead of the City Council vote, the city will also be putting an additional $391 million towards citywide and local investments at the insistence of the Council. “This is not just about making the facilities better, though that is important,” Council Speaker Corey Johnson said at a news conference prior to the Council’s vote on the jails plan. “It's about getting to the root of the problem of mass incarceration, and ensuring that people coming off of Rikers Island or other state prisons are able to reintegrate back into society and get the support they need.”

City Council Member Adrienne Adams, chair of a subcommittee that first voted through the jails plan, had announced that the investments would be about $470 million but that number was later amended. “Originally we included council initiatives for [Fiscal Year 2020] and one-shots by the administration, but the revised numbers only reflect the Points of Agreement,” said a Council spokesperson in an email. The points of agreement, formalized in a letter to the Council, include a range of new initiatives and expanded funding for current ones, and will ramp up till the 2023 fiscal year. 

Those initiatives include $66 million in the 2021 fiscal year (of which $54 million is new funding) to fund the supervised release program and other pre-trial services; $30.6 million in 2021 for alternatives to incarceration programs; and $34 million in 2021 for reentry and discharge programs.

The jails plan estimates, especially on the construction side, do not account for delays and cost overruns, of course, for which the city’s capital planning and execution are notorious. “It's a giant, complex infrastructure project,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “I mean, realistically, we're at the end of 2019, so they have five years to demolish three jails, mitigate the sites and build four new jails that they still haven't done design specifications for.”

“I think it would be miraculous really if the city were to achieve this on time and on budget,” she added. She also noted that the $8.7 billion for the jails plan doesn’t account for other facilities the city is building to house severely mentally ill detainees currently at Rikers. In March, as first reported by THE CITY, Health + Hospitals put out a request for proposals for consulting services on building Outposted Therapeutic Housing Units that would be attached to existing hospital facilities. There have been few details of how many beds those facilities would include and at what cost. “You could easily see that costing well above a billion dollars just to do that, and that's completely off the budget right now,” Gelinas said.

Gelinas predicted that the jails plan will face legal delays as well, which are prompted by even the simplest infrastructure projects like bus lanes. And, she said, the city has a lackluster record of capital project construction. “We just built the [Hunters Point library in Queens] that was half a decade late and basically twice its budget and it doesn't have facilities for the handicapped...I mean, even when these things are pretty straightforward, we're not all that good at it.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Candidates for Public Advocate

jw jb db

l-r: Jumaane Williams, Joe Borelli, and Devin Balkind (photo: William Alatriste & John McCarten/City Council)

October 21, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Candidates for Public Advocate

Jumaane Williams, Joseph Borelli, Devin Balkind

There's an election for New York City Public Advocate this fall, and just ahead of the October 26 start of early voting and Election Day, November 5, we spoke with incumbent Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, and his challengers: City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, and Devin Balkind, a civic technologist who is the Libertarian Party nominee. Each of the three joined the show for about 15 minutes to discuss his platform.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Police Officers Union Launches Campaign to Defeat NYPD Oversight Ballot Measure

mayors office promotion

PBA President Pat Lynch, second from left (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The Policemen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest law enforcement union, launched on Monday a campaign against ballot proposals aimed at strengthening police oversight. 

The PBA is urging its members and their allies to vote “no” on Question 2 on the ballot this fall in hopes of scuttling potential changes to the way the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) investigates and prosecutes officers accused of misconduct. A New York City charter revision commission has placed five questions with 19 proposals on the ballot this year, with voting across the city set to begin October 26 with early voting and conclude on Election Day, November 5.

In a statement posted to the PBA’s Twitter account at 9:35 a.m. on Monday, the union wrote, “Political extremists and cop-haters have been attacking NYC police officers in the streets for years. Now, they're doing it at the ballot box. Don't let the criminal advocates expand @CCRB_NYC's power. VOTE NO ON BALLOT QUESTION #2 #VoteNoOn2”. 

Accompanying the message is an image of an apparent protestor with most of their face hidden by a bandana and a Guy Fawkes mask, holding a Blue Lives Matter flag upside-down with the words, “F*** THE POLICE,” written across it (the union appears to have censored the expletive). Scrolling around the figure and the flag reads the text: “Do you know what’s on your ballot? Because they know…”

The same image and message is on the PBA website homepage. When clicked the ad directs readers to a page where they must enter their member log-in credentials to access what is posted.

Question 2 on the ballot contains five changes to the CCRB’s jurisdiction and operations. They include expanding the number of appointments to the board and who makes them; giving the executive director subpoena power; guaranteeing the CCRB’s budget; and requiring the police commissioner to provide an explanation when deviating from the board’s disciplinary recommendations. 

And the fifth and perhaps most controversial of the proposed CCRB amendments is an expansion of the Board’s jurisdiction to allow it to investigate officers suspected of lying to CCRB investigators. Currently, the agency must refer those cases to the NYPD even if it has proof an officer has lied while under investigation. The amendment is limited to apply only to officers already under CCRB investigation for other types of misconduct under its jurisdiction.

The PBA has also submitted a statement of opposition to the city’s Campaign Finance Board to be included in its Voter Guide, which illuminates the union’s position on the proposed amendment. “Ballot Question #2 would give CCRB sweeping new powers and drastically increase its budget,” the statement reads. “It should not be adopted. CCRB is a dysfunctional, ineffective agency, and increasing its authority would harm police officers and have serious ramifications for public safety.” 

The statement claims strengthening the CCRB would “embolden anti-police extremists, and reduce the authority of the Police Commissioner.” 

The CCRB is an all-civilian agency separate from the police department, though its Board often includes former NYPD officers. It is charged with substantiating certain misconduct complaints, prosecuting officers in departmental trial settings, and recommending discipline to the police commissioner. The Board is appointed by the mayor with eight of its 13 members nominated by the City Council and police commissioner. Under the city charter, the CCRB’s jurisdiction is limited to four types of civilian complaints: excessive use of force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language, and it can only investigate when a complaint is filed.

Police reform advocates and CCRB Chair Fred Davie believe the proposed changes would help the board carry out its mandate as outlined in the charter. 

“Let me just say, generally, I cannot advocate for anyone to go out and vote in favor of these proposals. But I think I’m free to talk about how I view their impact on the agency,” said Davie in an interview with Gotham Gazette earlier this month.

“And I think, on the whole, they are good for the agency and will help to advance civilian oversight of certain disciplinary aspects of the NYPD, those that fall within our jurisdiction,” he added. 

Referring to the proposal to bring suspected officer lying under the CCRB’s authority, Davie said, “Obviously, I think we should be able to investigate those. I think adds integrity to the process. It adds another level of accountability.”

A representative from Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) Action Fund, the political arm of a coalition of police reform and civil rights activists, said the group is urging voters to vote “yes” on Question 2. In an email sent to Gotham Gazette Monday, Monifa Bandele of MomsRising Together and the CPR Action Fund said, “Condoning false statements by police is dangerous for everyone, which is why CPR Action Fund is calling on all New Yorkers to vote Yes on 2 - to help ensure that the CCRB can investigate these incidents.”

“New Yorkers are increasingly rejecting racist and baseless fear-mongering by the police unions who protested the firing of the officer who killed Eric Garner,” the statement continued. “The latest bad-faith attempts by the PBA to advocate for police to be above the law and undermine the democratic process with lies is despicable." 

The Sergeants Benevolent Association and the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association do not appear to be waging parallel campaigns to the PBA’s. Representatives from the PBA, SBA, and COBA did not respond to requests for comments. According to the PBA website, the union represents approximately 24,000 current members of the NYPD.

In a second tweet posted at 12:07 p.m. Monday, the PBA quoted an article published in the New York Post in 2016 about a 2014 CCRB investigation carried out without a complaint on file. “‘The CCRB is so anti-cop that it is now accusing highly decorated officers of misconduct--even when no complaints are filed against them,” the tweet reads.

“This is a power grab by an agency with rampant anti-police bias. On Nov 5th VOTE NO ON BALLOT QUESTION #2,” the post continues, along with, “#VoteNoOn2,” a hashtag that currently appears more popular in states with stronger referendum traditions than in New York. 

Like the other four ballot questions, Question 2 had not received any organized public opposition before the PBA’s campaign launched Monday. In fact, the only organized advocacy around the proposals at all has been by a coalition of voting reformers who are pushing voters to approve Question 1, which would institute a ranked-choice voting system in some New York City elections.

The other three ballot questions deal with issues in the categories of ethics and governance, city budget, and land use.

As of Monday, the PBA has not reported any independent expenditures with the Campaign Finance Board, according to Matthew Sollars, the agency’s director of public relations. Independent campaign spending must be publicly disclosed if it exceeds $1,000 to promote or oppose a ballot proposal or candidate, but the filing deadline for expenditures made up to and including Monday is not until the end of the week.

With few consequential races on the ballot, this election is expected to have especially low turnout. Only the citywide public advocate, the Queens district attorney, and a handful of judicial seats are up for election. Ballot referenda in New York tend to have even lower response rates than other contests on Election Day.

This year, voters will have the opportunity to cast ballots at early voting sites from October 26 to November 3, or on Election Day, Tuesday, November 5.

[Read: There are NYPD Oversight Measures on the Ballot - How Significant are They?]

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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