Harlem Council Leader Argues For Criminal-Justice Overhaul

February 25, 2016

Melissa-Mark-Viverito-IOU_7934The leader of the City Council issued an emphatic call for the end of the Rikers Island jail complex and changes for the “highly, highly punitive” criminal-justice system Thursday, blasting naysayers for spreading “misinformation.”

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito did not mention Police Commissioner Bill Bratton or correction union chief Norman Seabrook by name, but both have dismissed the idea in the weeks since the speaker raised the possibility in her annual State of the City speech.

Bratton argued last week that housing detainees in local neighborhoods rather than on Rikers Island could threaten public safety, which Mark-Viverito denied.

“That’s ridiculous,” the speaker said Thursday at a Crain’s breakfast forum in midtown, “because people that are being held at Rikers are people awaiting their trial date. Do we believe in the notion of innocent until proven guilty?”

Detainees are already held in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, but the police commissioner did not say they had made the surrounding blocks more dangerous.

An independent commission headed by the state’s former top judge, Jonathan Lippman, will work on a blueprint for closing the jail, Mark-Viverito announced in her State of the City speech. The commission’s members and goals will be announced in March, she said Thursday.

“We have an institution built in the 1930s, which … is ineffective, inefficient,” she said of the jail complex. “Our whole approach to criminal justice is punitive, highly, highly punitive, for even very, very low-level nonviolent offenses. These are policies, decades-old, that we have to revisit,” she added to applause from an audience of business leaders at the breakfast.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio has stopped short of calling for Rikers’ closure, saying it would be too costly. But Mark-Viverito argues that the cost of transporting detainees long distances to and from court is a waste. She denounced concerns about reducing punishments for minor infractions and establishing neighborhood jails as fearmongering.

“Unfortunately, those are the fears that are being stoked,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation—that some way, when we talk about low-level offenses, that we’re allowing everyone to pee on every corner of the city of New York. C’mon, really. You know, we’re really trying to create greater equity in a system that has been unfair for too long.”

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