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Katal Testimony — Committee on Criminal Justice Preliminary Budget Hearing FY 2025

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Thank you, Chair Sandy Nurse, for holding this New York City Council Budget and Oversight Hearing on the Preliminary Budget of the Department of Correction for Fiscal Year 2025. My name is Yonah Zeitz, I’m the director of advocacy 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. Many of our members know exactly how horrific Rikers really is.

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 across the city are deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis playing out in our city’s jail system and its enormous fiscal cost. According to the City Comptroller, the cost of incarceration at Rikers is $556,539 a person per year, which is $1,525 a day.[i] It is unconscionable that Mayor Adams is driving up the jail population, costing New York taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and getting us further away from shutting down Rikers.

Why are libraries, universal pre-K, summer youth employment, educational programs, health services, and other essential services being cut while the city continues to excessively fund incarceration at a deadly and tortuous jail complex?

The mayor is proposing a bloated $2.6 billion dollar budget for the Department of Correction in FY 2025, while also cutting $28 million in funding for alternatives to incarceration, supervised release, and reentry services.[ii] We know alternatives to incarceration work, they are much cheaper, and diversion options are available right now to reduce the jail population.

Evidence and research have also 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.[iii]

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. The 2019 plan requires the population to be brought down to less than 4,000, yet the jail numbers are trending in the opposite direction.

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. And worse, the mayor since day one 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.

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 6,200 people in city jails,[iv] and they’re not done: the previous DOC Commissioner told the Council that they are planning for the city’s jail population to go beyond 7000.[v]

It has been said that budgets are moral documents that they reflect priorities. The mayor’s budget is morally bankrupt and shows he intends to keep Rikers open. Adding another 800 people to the city’s jail population will, using the Comptroller’s figures, cost nearly half a billion dollars. This coupled with championing the NYPDs near $12 billion dollar bloated budget to expand resources to advance discriminatory policing practices will further drive up the jail population and set back the closure plan as it will result in more Black, brown, and low-income New Yorker’s being arrested and sent to Rikers. 

This is outrageous, irresponsible, and clearly untenable, especially as 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.[vi] Under Mayor Eric Adams, conditions at Rikers have gotten worse. Violence at Rikers is out of control. At least 30 people have died in the city jail system since Adams became mayor in 2022.[vii] 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.”[viii] It’s clear the only solution is to close Rikers once and for all.

We urge members of the NYC Council to take drastic steps to get the city back on track to fulfilling its commitment to shutting down Rikers.

We urge this council to focus on three things: first, cut the budgets used for caging people – the DOC budget is bloated, wasteful, and must be cut. The city must also cut the number of people incarcerated at Rikers through increasing funding for alternatives to incarceration, supervised released, and re-entry services. 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. The Council must pass a budget that advances efforts to shutter the notorious jail complex. 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 183, which calls for a federal receiver. 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, last 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.”[ix] Calls for a federal receiver have grown over this year — today, nearly 70 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 183. Passing Resolution 183 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.

 

[i] 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

[ii] Vera Institute for Justice “A Look Inside the FY 2025 DOC Budget: Mayor Adams Continues to Invest in Incarceration over Communities.” February 2024. https://vera-advocacy-and-partnerships.s3.amazonaws.com/GJNY_Look%20inside%20the%20DOC%20FY25%20Budget.pdf

[iii] 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

[iv] For the 2024 data, see Vera Institute for Justice. “JailVizNYC.” March 4 2024. https://greaterjusticeny.vera.org/nycjail.

[v] 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

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

[vii] 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

[viii] 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

[ix] 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

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