So the City Council approved the closing of Rikers Island Oct. 17. Speaker Corey Johnson and his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito—who was the original driving force behind the move—shared a hug and Mayor de Blasio declared, “Today we made history: the era of mass incarceration is over.”
And the best thing about it, from his standpoint, may be that the actual shutdown date is 2026, by which time he will be long gone from office and scrutiny.
Mr. Johnson may not be as fortunate. He is considered a leading contender for Mayor in 2021, and if he won then would—based on recent city history—be re-elected and serving at the point that the large penal colony actually becomes defunct. But it’s also possible, if recent events on city streets and in its courtrooms are any indication, that two years from now most New Yorkers will be wondering why this seemed like a good idea at the moment the legislation was passed.
Amid the euphoria, there were three incidents within a 48-hour period in which cops were forced to fire at suspects in Brooklyn and The Bronx, killing two of them.
A 17-year-old in March was released while charged with 34 counts of criminal behavior, including assault and armed robbery, after a Brooklyn judge denied a prosecution request that bail be $225,000 and instead set it at $6,000. He was back in court Oct. 15 for a string of crimes he allegedly committed during the interim, including raping a 12-year-old girl. The teen, Tony Johnson, disrupted the hearing by screaming that a prosecutor was a “f------ bitch!” A day later, Acting Supreme Court Justice Craig Walker asked him how he could behave in such a fashion when “every time you appeared before me, I’ve treated you with nothing but respect,” according to the New York Post. There’s a difference between respect and reckless indulgence, your honor.
The crime spree in which Mr. Johnson allegedly engaged while free on bail, in addition to sexually assaulting the 12-year-old, included robbing three teenagers and repeatedly punching one female victim in the face. This did not earn him a trip to Rikers when he was finally collared earlier this month; because the state’s Raise the Age Law as of Oct. 1 barred the holding of 17-year-olds in adult jails, he was instead detained at Horizon Juvenile Center, which over the previous 12 months experienced a surge in violence once 16-year-old inmates from Rikers were transferred there.
Even with the recent flurry of violent incidents, more than a few involving attacks on police officers, crime remains low in the city—shockingly so if compared to 1990, when murders peaked at 2,245, compared to 289 last year. But homicides in 2019 are up slightly compared to last year, and shootings have risen about two dozen compared to the number for the first nine months of 2018. Those are not good signs.
Nor is the increasing disrespect being shown for cops looking to properly exercise their authority. A video posted by the Daily News the day after the Rikers closing was approved showed a man, confronted by police over public drinking, respond by punching one of the officers in the face, setting off a brawl in which he and another man fought with officers and stole the cellphone of one of them. An attorney with Bronx Defenders on Facebook early this month lauded another public defender for suggesting that the headline on a story about the friendly-fire killing of Police Officer Brian Mulkeen by fellow officers as he scuffled with a suspect should have been, “NYPD Murders Another Black Man, Then One Of Their Own.”
Whatever excesses were committed by law-enforcement over the years, such chuckleheaded thinking by criminal suspects and public defenders alike isn’t a preferable state of affairs.
Mr. de Blasio would probably prefer that New Yorkers forget that he initially dismissed Ms. Mark-Viverito’s push to close Rikers as impracticable, before he joined her parade out of concern that standing against it might reduce the margin of victory in his 2017 re-election.
There were good reasons for him to be skeptical then. Some that still exist were spelled out prior to the vote by Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen, who has pointed to increased assaults by inmates against officers and fellow detainees in recent years and contended that the Correction Department’s scaling back of solitary confinement took away the best deterrent available.
In the horse-trading that secured enough Council votes to ensure passage of the legislation, the four borough-based jails had to be scaled back from a total capacity of 4,000 inmates to about 3,300. The city jail population has been steadily falling and is now 7,000, but is the new number realistic? What happens if the long downward trend in crime is halted?
Speaker Johnson said before the vote began, “What we are doing today will reshape this city for generations to come, it will impact the lives of every New Yorker.”
Let’s hope those words won’t wind up clanging with irony.