Opinion: Queens is NYC’s misdemeanor incarceration capital

The entrance to Rikers Island.  Eagle  photo by David Brand

The entrance to Rikers Island. Eagle photo by David Brand

By Rory Lancman

Queens is officially the misdemeanor incarceration capital of New York City.

According to data provided by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, released pursuant to Local Law 86 of 2015, Queens last year sent 2,501 misdemeanor defendants to Rikers Island, more than any other borough in the city. That fact is a stark reminder of how backwards and outdated our criminal justice system is, and how urgently we need reform in Queens.

While other district attorney jurisdictions in New York City are taking a variety of steps to end mass incarceration, Queens remains an outlier in continuing to send New Yorkers to jail for low-level offenses with no demonstrable public safety purpose and before they have even been convicted. The end result is a criminal justice system in Queens that both over-incarcerates and undermines citywide reform efforts.

Making matters worse, in the last six months of the year, 494 pre-trial defendants from Queens — more than any other borough — entered jail because they could not immediately pay bail set at $1,000 or less. We should not be sending individuals charged with minor offenses to Rikers Island solely because they cannot afford to pay bail.

Low-level incarceration comes at great expense to taxpayers. The Independent Budget Office in 2017 estimated that the cost to house an individual on Rikers Island exceeded $118,000 annually, and $325 for a single day. Locking people up pre-trial on misdemeanor charges is a terrible use of taxpayer resources that offers no tangible benefit for the community.

Remember, behind these statistics are human beings who have not been found guilty of the minor offense with which they’ve been accused. Time on Rikers Island means time away from your family, friends, community, employment and support networks. It could mean losing a job or being evicted from an apartment.

We should be thinking about how we can build strong and vibrant families and communities instead of needlessly destabilizing people’s lives.

Councilmember Rory Lancman is the chairperson of the City Council’s Committee on the Justice System and a candidate for Queens District Attorney.