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    04.06.18 Symposium Considers What Closing Rikers Means for Brooklyn
    Decarcerate Brooklyn_Jocelyn Simonson

    Following an advocate-driven campaign to #CLOSERikers and a report recommending closure from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year his intention to close the Rikers Island Jail Complex over the next 10 years, replacing it with a system of smaller, borough-based jails.

    The Law School recently hosted “Decarcerate Brooklyn: What Closing Rikers Means for Our Borough,” a discussion with faculty, elected officials, attorneys in the field, and reform advocates to consider what closing Rikers Island means for Brooklyn and, more broadly, the entire city. The Brooklyn House of Detention—located blocks from the Law School—is the proposed site of the new and expanded local jail, but it is far from a done deal. Instead, there are many issues to resolve in the coming months and years.

    Moderated by Professor Jocelyn Simonson, co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice, which sponsored the event, the panel discussion featured Tina Luongo '02, Attorney-in-Charge of Criminal Practice at the Legal Aid Society; Stephen Levin, New York City Council Member representing the 33rd District, Brooklyn; Jill Harris, Policy and Strategy Counsel in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office; Rogelio Headley, Community Leader at VOCAL-NY; and Darren Mack, JustLeadership USA Member and #CLOSErikers campaign leader.

    “This is the kind of discussion that the Center for Criminal Justice here at Brooklyn Law School was launched three years ago to generate: a debate over one of the most important issues of social justice and public safety, among affected people on all sides of the issue,” said Simonson. “This is a time in our local history when we are truly able to say that change in the landscape of local criminal justice is possible.”

    While the Lippman Report focused on the need to close Rikers Island, the panelists took a longer-term view, focusing instead on broader reforms to the criminal justice system—at both the state and city level. All agreed that Rikers should be closed, but sounded a frustrated tone at the lack of movement by state leaders.

    Luongo cited measures including bail reform and improved and updated discovery procedures—but said that much more needs to be done. “As much as I believe the Rikers commission, the chief judge and all the work that has been done to reform the system…every single reform that were doing here in New York City, from supervised release to talking about reforming low-level offenses, it’s just scratching the surface,” she said. “We need legislative reform in Albany to move. Frankly, this was the week to get it done in the budget, and it’s completely stopped.”

    Harris said the District Attorney’s office is working with community partners and exploring alternatives. With respect to low-level offenses, she said “the DA supports being able to take [the level of danger] into account.” 

    Mack, who served time at Rikers when he was 17 years old, called Rikers “the Abu Ghraib of New York,” adding that no human being should ever go through what he experienced at the facility. “Rikers, the violence, the brutality, the corruption, I’ve experienced it,” he said. “Even just thinking about it brings a lot of emotions because I know people who haven’t survived it.”

    Headley concurred, saying teenagers who enter Rikers healthy often come out with physical and mental issues. 

    Levin is in favor of the borough-based system, citing the benefit of new jails “closer to the courts, better for the people housed there, and better for their families.” He also believes that reforming the system and building the new jails could happen simultaneously. “In my mind, we could do both at the same time,” he said.   

    The Center for Criminal Justice was launched by Brooklyn Law School in 2016 as a dynamic center that builds on the existing strengths of the school’s nationally recognized criminal law faculty and places the Law School at the center of critical conversations, education, and sharing of expertise on the most vital issues and topics in criminal justice law and policy today.

    Read more:

    Advocates want criminal justice reform to go beyond simply closing Rikers Island