NYC Mayor Calls on Council Members to Volunteer for New Jails in Their Districts So Rikers Island Can Close

Correction officers call themselves “New York’s Boldest,” seen here painted on halls of the George Motchan Detention Center on Rikers Island. Emily Assiran/Observer

Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted today that the responsibility for siting the new, diffused network of holding facilities intended to replace Rikers Island over the next decade will fall not on him, but on the City Council—and called for bold members of the body to take the political gamble of recommending the city put a jail on their own home turf.

De Blasio released a “roadmap” for phasing out the infamous island incarceration center this morning, which mostly reiterated steps he called for when he announced a plan to shutter Rikers in March: combining sentencing, bail, mental health and rehabilitation reforms to reduce the city’s inmate population from 9,300 today to 7,000 by 2021 and 5,000 by 2027. This timetable conveniently places the burden of actually closing the sprawling detention complex on the mayor’s successor, and the plan does not include a schematic for locating the replacement jails adjacent to the criminal court buildings in each borough, as called for in a report former state Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman co-authored earlier this year.

The mayor maintained that his proposal leaves open the question of where to place the new facilities because of the Council’s longstanding tradition of giving its members veto power over zoning changes in their districts.

“We need to see a commitment from the City Council members in the districts that have been initially propose to specifically start the land use process to achieve it,” de Blasio told radio host Brian Lehrer in his weekly “Ask the Mayor Segment” on WNYC. “All of it’s theoretical, Brian, unless a Council member comes forward and says ‘I’m going to support the placement of this facility.'”

The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process on such matters begins with local input in area community boards, and eventually comes before the full Council for a vote before concluding on the mayor’s desk. De Blasio’s proposal would effectively force Council members to face the ire of constituents at concerned for their quality-of-life and property values at several rounds of hearings.

“We need to figure out which specific places, which Council members, are ready to come forward and get that done,” de Blasio continued. “We can’t get off Rikers unless there are specific places where the local leadership accepts a jail.”

Lehrer noted that the plan calls for a detention center in each borough except Staten Island, which de Blasio chalked up to the small number of inmates originating there—and to resistance from Councilwoman Debi Rose, whose district covers the courts.

“Obviously, there’s been opposition from the local Council member,” he said. “Whether we think it’s a perfect system or not, everyone that pays attention to our City Council, our land use system, understands how central the role of the local Council member is.”

NYC Mayor Calls on Council Members to Volunteer for New Jails in Their Districts So Rikers Island Can Close