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Testimony for Committee on Finance Oversight Hearing

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Monday, December 11, 2023

Thank you, Chair Justin Brannan, for holding this hearing and inviting our testimony. My name  is Yonah Zeitz, I’m the director of advocacy at the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice.  We’re based in Brooklyn, and our members come from across the city and state. Our members  

include people who have been incarcerated in city jails and state prisons, family members of  currently and formerly incarcerated people, working class residents, and more.  

Katal opposes Mayor Adams’s proposed 5% cuts as outlined in the November Financial Plan.  This fifth round of austerity cuts, if approved, would slash the budgets of essential services by  $1.4 billion and cut 2,000 much-needed city jobs. Under Mayor Adams, our city is already losing  essential services — libraries are cutting their hours, people are losing their jobs, education is  being slashed, CUNY ASAP is being gutted, childcare seats are being cut, thousands of housing  and service agency positions are being eliminated. 

While essential services have faced five rounds of major austerity cuts under this Mayor, the  New York Police Department and the Department of Correction have been given preferential  treatment. Despite their bloated budgets and large wasteful spending in their overtime and  uniformed budgets, the NYPD and the DOC continue to be richly funded while our libraries and  other essential services face drastic cuts.  

NYC is one of the wealthiest cities in the world and it is outrageous for the mayor to make  drastic cuts to essential services while the city is holding $9 billion in reserves.  

Our city is facing a leadership crisis, not a budget crisis. There are numerous solutions laid out  by government and independent watchdogs to manage the city’s fiscal issues without such severe  cuts to essential services. But this mayor, beset by a growing number of scandals, ignores those  options, and instead seeks to dismantle the infrastructure and programs that help keep New  Yorkers safe and healthy. 

For an alarming example of this, we don’t have to look any farther than the mayor’s handling of  dumpster fire that is the Riker Island Jail Complex.  

As this committee knows, the conditions at New York City’s massive jail complex are horrific and life-threatening for human beings – the people incarcerated and those who work there.i Violence is rampant.ii Racism and other types of bias are deeply entrenched.iii And though Black and Latinx people constitute about half of the city’s population, they represent almost 90 percent of jail admissions.iv 

Under Mayor Eric Adams, conditions at Rikers have gotten worse. Violence at Rikers is out of control. At least 28 people have died in the city jail system since Adams became mayor in

2022.v But the actual number of deaths is unknown, because under this administration, the Department of Correction (DOC) has become less transparent and at one point even declared that they would stop reporting deaths to the public.vi Under Mayor Eric Adams, the levels of violence and dysfunction at Rikers are so egregious that in April 2023, federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York wrote, “Incarcerated people and corrections staff continue to face an imminent risk of harm on a daily basis.”vii 

Incarceration at Rikers is extremely costly. In fiscal year 2023, the DOC budget cost city  taxpayers $1.36 billion. According to the City Comptroller, the cost of incarceration at Rikers is  $556,539 a person per year, which is $1,525 a day.viii Why are libraries and educational  programs and other essential services being cut when we know alternatives to incarceration  work, they are much cheaper, and diversion options are available right now to reduce the jail  population?  

Indeed, evidence and research have long shown that mental health programming is dramatically  cheaper than incarceration, yet Rikers has become the city’s largest mental health facility. More than 50 percent of people incarcerated there have been diagnosed with a mental health condition,  yet they have little or no access to meaningful care while they are locked up.ix 

Under Mayor Adams, the jail population is going up when it should be decreasing, costing New York City hundreds of millions of dollars. For more than two decades, the population at Rikers was, generally, on a downward trend along with crime rates in our city—we showed that, reducing incarceration and reducing crime went hand in hand. But since his first day in office, Mayor Adams has worked to reverse that trend. There were about 5,000 people in city jails when Adams became mayor. Today, there are more than 6,000 people in city jails,x and they’re not done: last December, the DOC Commissioner told the Council that they are planning for the city’s jail population to go beyond 7000.xi 

The “jails-first” approach preferred by Mayor Adams is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars while threatening the closure of Rikers Island. In 2017, under pressure from community groups, the City finally committed to closing Rikers Island. In 2019, the city 

council passed a legislative package to make closure a reality by 2027. Reports by the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform and the Institute for State and Local Governance have found that the closure of Rikers will save city taxpayers $1.3 billion annually – even after accounting for costs of implementing the plan. Yet Mayor Adams has simply ignored the legal and process benchmarks of the 2019 plan. Or worse, the mayor has worked to undermine core tenets of the 2019 plan, particularly with regard to the jail population – instead of working to reduce the jail population, the mayor has focused on sending more Black, Brown, and low-income New Yorkers to jail.

The mayor’s jails-first approach not only costs New Yorkers more in the immediate term, but also threatens substantial savings in the long term. This is outrageous, irresponsible, and clearly untenable. 

We urge members of the NYC Council to reject the mayor’s budget modifications that will drastically cut essential services. Instead, we urge this council to focus on three things: first, cut the budgets used for caging people – the NYPD and DOC budgets are bloated, wasteful, and must be cut. Second, the closure of Rikers is not just a moral and legal imperative, but given the extraordinary savings that can be realized, it is also a fiscal imperative. Budget modifications made by the council should maintain a focus on how such choices will advance efforts to shutter the notorious jail complex once and for all. 

Third, we must maintain investments in things that produces real public safety: housing, healthcare, education, jobs. The mayor has it exactly backwards – he wants to cut these core services while maintaining the budgets used for caging people. This council must reject that approach. 

Finally, with regards to Rikers and the human beings detained there and working there, there is one more thing this council can do now – pass Resolution 669, which calls for a federal receiver. This week, federal judge Laura T. Swain is set to hold an important hearing with regards Rikers. Katal and other community organizations have worked for years to shut down Rikers and hold Adams accountable while demanding action by the city, state, and federal government to save lives. After years of foot-dragging by the courts, this summer, Judge Swain finally opened the door to the possibility of appointing a federal receiver, acknowledging that “people incarcerated at Rikers are at a grave risk of immediate harm” and that “the current state of affairs is tragic and unacceptable.”xii Calls for a federal receiver have grown over this year — today, more than 50 community, advocacy, and faith-based organizations have joined the call for a federal receiver to take over at Rikers. And as of today, the Legal Aid Society, the U.S Attorney for the SDNY, and NY Attorney General Leticia James have all filed motions in federal court formally calling for the appointment of an independent federal receiver. 

While the council continues its work on fighting for a budget that will allow all New Yorkers to thrive, we urge the council to take immediate action to relieve suffering at Rikers by passing Resolution 669. Nearly 20 council members have now co-sponsored resolution 669. Passing Resolution 669 is a concrete step this council can take right now to address the crisis at Rikers. Until Rikers is shut down, there must be immediate action to improve conditions and save lives and invest in alternatives to incarceration and other non-carceral solutions that are proven to increase public safety. Thank you.

Citations

[1] Erica Bryant. “[It’s] a Torture Chamber: Stories from Rikers Island.” Vera Institute of Justice. February 2022. vera.org/its-a-torture-chamber.

[1] Jonah E. Bromwich and Jan Ransom. “Rikers Still ‘Unstable and Unsafe’ Under New Jails Chief, Watchdog Says.” The New York Times. March 16, 2022. nytimes.com/2022/03/16/nyregion/rikers-jail-violence-report.html.

[1] Black and Latino people are far more likely to be incarcerated at Rikers than white people facing similar charges. Young, LGBQTI, and gender nonconforming people face higher rates of violence. Concerns about young people and about transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex (TGNCNBI) people on Rikers Island and in other jails and prisons have long warranted attention. To read more about issues for young people in the city’s jails, see “Case: Nunez and United States v. City of New York.” Nunez and United States v. City of New York 1:11-Cv-05845 (S.D.N.Y.), Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, July 10, 2023. clearinghouse.net/case/12072. To read more about issues for TGNCNBI people in the city’s jails, see New York City Board of Correction. “Task Force on Issues Faced by TGNCNBI People in Custody.” Updated 2023. www1.nyc.gov/site/boc/jail-regulations/task-force-on-issues-faced-by-tgncbi.page

[1] United States Census Bureau. “Quick Facts: New York City, New York.” July 1, 2021. census.gov/quickfacts/newyorkcitynewyork; Bruce Western, Jaclyn Davis, Flavien Ganter, and Natalie Smith. “The Cumulative Risk of Jail Incarceration.” PNAS 118, No. 16. (2021). pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2023429118; Reuven Blau. “Racial Gap in City Jails Has Only Gotten Worse, John Jay Study Finds.” The City. March 2, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/3/2/23621862/racial-gap-nyc-jails-got-worse

[1] Michael Rempel. Decarceration in the Bail Reform Era: New York City’s Changing Jail Population Since 2019. Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College. December 2022. 2. https://datacollaborativeforjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Decarceration_Reform_Era_NYC7.pdf

[1] Jan Ransom and Jonah E. Bromwich. “ ‘I Just Want to Be Normal’: A Mentally Ill Man’s Death at Rikers.” The New York Times. September 27, 2021. nytimes.com/2021/09/27/nyregion/rikers-island-esias-johnson.html, citing Anthony Shorris and Mindy Tarlow. Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, February 2016. 62. https://www.nyc.gov/assets/operations/downloads/pdf/pmmr2016/2016_pmmr.pdf

[1] Jan Ransom and Jonah E. Bromwich. “Tracking the Deaths in New York City’s Jail System.” The New York Times. February 4, 2023. www.nytimes.com/article/rikers-deaths-jail.html

[1] Reuven Blau. “City Jails No Longer Announcing Deaths Behind Bars, Angering Watchdogs.” The City. May 31, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/5/31/23744666/correction-jails-not-announcing-deaths-rikers

[1] Hurubie Meko. “N.Y.C. Jails Chief Is Hiding Dysfunction at Rikers, Federal Monitor Says.” The New York Times. June 8, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/08/nyregion/rikers-island-jail-report.html; Matt Katz. “Judge Will Consider Federal Takeover of NYC Jails, Including Rikers, This Summer.” Gothamist. June 13, 2023. https://gothamist.com/news/judge-will-consider-federal-takeover-of-nyc-jails-including-rikers-this-summer

[1] Meko, “N.Y.C. Jails Chief”; Reuven Blau. “Secrecy on Severe Jail Injuries Spurs Rikers Monitor to Sound Alarm.” The City. May 29, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/5/29/23741411/rikers-jail-injuries-secrecy-corrections-monitor; Matt Katz, “Rikers Detainees at ‘Imminent Risk’ of Harm; Federal Monitor Alleges Five New ‘Disturbing’ Incidents.” Gothamist. May 30, 2023. https://gothamist.com/news/rikers-detainees-at-imminent-risk-of-harm-federal-monitor-alleges-five-new-disturbing-incidents

[1] For the 2023 data, see Vera Institute for Justice. “JailVizNYC.” November 28, 2023. https://greaterjusticeny.vera.org/nycjail.

[1] Courtney Gross. “Rikers closure plan not on track, commissioner says”. Spectrum News 1. 2023. Retrieved from  https://ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2022/12/14/rikers-closure-plan-not-on-track–commissioner-says

[1] New York City Comptroller. “Comptroller Stringer: Cost of Incarceration per Person in New York City Skyrockets to All-Time High.” December 6, 2021. comptroller.nyc.gov/newsroom/comptroller-stringer-cost-of-incarceration-per-person-in-new-york-city-skyrockets-to-all-time-high-2

[1] New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget. “Expense Budget: Agency Budget Forecast” for the Department of Correction. Updated June 2023. https://www.nyc.gov/site/omb/publications/agency-budgets-projections.page?projection=072

[1] For links to the reports, see Tillid. “What Is the Nunez Monitorship?” https://tillidgroup.com/projects/nunez-monitorship

[1] Steve J. Martin, Kelly Dedel, Anna E. Friedberg, Dennis O. Gonzalez, Patrick Hurley, Alycia M. Karlovich, Emmitt Sparkman, and Christina Bucci Vanderveer. Status Report on DOC’s Action Plan by the Nunez Independent Monitor. April 24, 2023. 27. https://tillidgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/2023-04-24-Status-Report-of-Action-Plan.pdf

[1] Reuven Blau. “Judge Says ‘Transformative Change’ Needed, Laying Groundwork for a Possible Rikers Takeover”.” The City. August 10, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/8/10/23827946/rikers-takeover-judge-receiver

[1] Sahalie Donaldson. “Which city leaders are calling for a federal takeover of Rikers Island?” City & State. December 5, 2023. https://www.cityandstateny.com/politics/2023/12/which-city-leaders-are-calling-federal-takeover-rikers-island/392472/

[1] New York City Council Resolution 0669-2023. “Resolution Calling on the President of the United States to Immediately Place New York City Jails in Federal Receivership. June 8, 2023. https://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=6252835&GUID=6538B8E0-7680-4612-8D2F-4A62BE2E0F62&Options=&Search=; Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. “Citywide Elected Officials and Community Groups Rally Outside Rikers to Call for Closure of Jail Complex.” June 7, 2023. https://katalcenter.org/city-wide-elected-officials-and-community-groups-rally-outside-rikers-to-call-for-closure-of-jail-complex; Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. “Katal New York Update – June 29, 2023.” https://katalcenter.org/katal-new-york-update-june-29-2023/

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