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Katal Testimony at City Council Preliminary Budget Hearing: Committee on Criminal Justice

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Testimony by Melanie Dominguez, Lead Organizer, on behalf of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice

Thank you, Speaker Adrienne Adams and Chair Carlina Rivera, for holding this New York City Council Budget and Oversight Hearing on the Preliminary Budget of the Department of Corrections for Fiscal Year 2024. My name is Melanie Dominguez, I’m the lead organizer at the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, based in Brooklyn. Our members are from across the City, and include people who have been incarcerated, family members of currently and formerly incarcerated people, and more.

We are grateful for this Council’s focus on supporting and sustaining a City where all New Yorkers can thrive. We submit this testimony to bring your attention to the crisis at Rikers and the need to immediately shutter the notorious jail complex. New Yorkers, including our members, are deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis playing out in our city’s jail system.

As you know, the Rikers Island Jail Complex has a long-documented history of violence and abuse. Under Mayor Adams, it’s only getting worse. Since Mayor Adams took office, 20 people have died in New York City. Today Rikers is the deadliest it has been in 25 years.[i] Violence at Rikers is at an all-time high.[ii] It’s not hard to see why – under Adams, the dysfunction and mismanagement of the jails and Department of Correction has intensified.

Under Adams, even the most basic aspects of operations at Rikers have further unraveled into disarray. For instance, the Department of Correction (DOC) is failing to get incarcerated people to their medical appointments, with some months exceeding 10,000 missed appointments.[iii] The DOC is also failing to get people to court – over 25% of incarcerated people are not brought to court in time.[iv] 

One might think that the ongoing crisis at Rikers would compel Mayor Adams to expedite the closure of the facility. But Mayor Adams has made clear he has no intention to close Rikers.

First, to close Rikers, the population must come down to 3,300. For more than decade, the population at Rikers has been steadily going down. But over the last 15 months, the jail population has been going up. Since his first day in office, Mayor Adams has made it a priority to send even more low-income, Black, and brown New Yorkers to be jailed at Rikers, subjecting them to dangerous and life-threatening conditions. The jail population is now at 5,917, which constitutes an increase of over 500 people since Adams took office 15 months ago.[v]

But Mayor Adams isn’t satisfied, he wants even more New Yorkers to rot in Rikers. Last December, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina told this very committee that the DOC is planning for the city’s jail population to go up to 7000 this year. That means jailing another 1,100 people – pretrial. Remember, the vast majority of everyone in city jails are detained pre-trial – they have not been convicted of a crime. The mayor has called these people “offenders.” They are legally innocent New Yorkers, most of whom are unable to afford bail.

As the crisis at Rikers worsens, and as the mayor seeks to send even more people to be jailed there, he’s simultaneously working to dismantle mechanisms of accountability and transparency by restricting the oversight authority of the Board of Correction.[vi] The DOC Commissioner doesn’t even bother attending all of the Board hearings.

It has been said that budgets are moral documents, that they reflect priorities. Adding another 1,100 people to the city’s jail population will, using the Comptroller’s figures, cost approximately half a billion dollars. The mayor is championing a proposed $11.2 billion-dollar budget for the NYPD to expand discriminatory policing practices. The mayor is simultaneously proposing deep cuts to essential programs across the city – including mental health services, legal services, summer youth employment, homelessness services, housing, libraries, universal 3K, and much more – all this while protecting the bloated budgets of the NYPD and Department of Correction.

The mayor’s budget is morally bankrupt. Why in the world would this Council approve the mayor’s proposed budget that cuts, for instance, $33 million from libraries, while giving a green light to this Administration to spend more than half a BILLION to jail 1,100 more New Yorkers pretrial at a deadly jail we all know must close? 

Without a drastic change of course, there will be more suffering and more needless deaths on Rikers. At this pinnacle moment, the City Council must flat out reject this regressive and harmful budget proposal. This budget must be revised to focus on cutting the correctional population, shutting down Rikers, and making investments in real public safety: housing, health care, education, good jobs.

In 2019, the City Council passed a package of bills the put into law a timeline to close Rikers and invest in public safety approaches that keep our communities safe without relying on incarceration. The mayor’s budget proposal again makes it clear he has no intention of closing Rikers. That’s why having you here today, Speaker Adams, is so important, and why the City urgently needs this Council to step up and hold the line. D0 not allow the Mayor to cut essential services such as libraries and mental health services, which are needed now more that even as marginalized communities are still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. D0 not allow the Mayor to let the NYPD and DOC run wild with seemingly boundless budgets without any checks or balances or gains to public safety.

The City Council must hold the mayor accountable and make it clear there will be no budget without a concrete and clear plan on how he intends to fulfill the City’s commitment to close Rikers no later than 2027.  Thank you.

[i] Jan Ransom and Jonah Bromwich. “Tracking the deaths in New York City’s jail system in 2022”. New York Times. 2022. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/article/rikers-deaths-jail.html.

[ii] Vital City Editorial Team. “State of the Jails: New York City.” Vital City. 2023. Retrieved from https://www.vitalcitynyc.org/articles/state-of-the-jails-november-2022

[iii] Jake Offenhartz. “More Rikers detainees missing medical appointments, despite reform efforts.” Gothamist. 2022. Retrieved from https://gothamist.com/news/more-rikers-detainees-missing-medical-appointments-despite-reform-efforts 

[iv] Matt Katz. “1 in 4 people jailed in NYC are not being brought to court on time.” Gothamist. 2023. Retrieved from https://gothamist.com/news/1-in-4-people-jailed-in-nyc-are-not-being-brought-to-court-on-time

[v] For the 2023 data, see Vera Institute for Justice. “JailVizNYC.” March 21, 2023. https://greaterjusticeny.vera.org/nycjail.

[vi] Courtney Gross. “After NY1 investigation, Department of Correction limits access to security video” Spectrum News 1. 2023. Retrieved from https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/public-safety/2023/01/19/after-ny1-investigation–department-of-correction-limits-access-to-security-video

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