Debate Highlights Contrasting Views On Rikers’ Future — And On Justice Reform

By David Brand

Council Member Rory Lancman faced off against Queens Assistant District Attorney James Quinn in a heated debate about the future of Rikers Island at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills Wednesday night.

Of the many accusations, complicated budget scenarios and impassioned declarations volleyed back and forth between the two men and audience members, one exchange seemed to crystallize the fundamental difference of opinion on the future of the massive jail complex — and on broader criminal justice reform.

During his opening statement, Quinn, speaking for Queens Defense Attorney Richard Brown and the D.A.’s office, critiqued efforts to close Rikers as a “movement.”

“A movement doesn’t look at details,” Quinn said, before outlining budget underestimations and hammering what he considered impracticalities, like where the city would house inmates during the development of four proposed “borough-based” jails.

An hour later, Lancman addressed the specific statement in his closing remarks.  

“The effort to close Rikers Island is a movement,” Lancman said. “It’s part of a larger movement to reform a criminal justice system that is dysfunctional, broken and overwhelmingly falls on the backs of poor people.”

The contrasting comments on the Close Rikers movement reflect two sides of the debate evident in the audience and throughout Queens.

Quinn, the Queens D.A.’s office and representatives from local civic associations say closing Rikers is too impractical and costly. The status quo works, they say.

“In my opinion, it would be wiser for the city to refurbish the existing facilities on RIkers Island rather than to spend billions of dollars in demolition and construction costs building new jails,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “These new jails would create havoc in our neighborhoods and disruption in the court system for years to come.

Lancman, however, said that closing Rikers would be cost-effective for the city and his constituents. But he focused most of his attention on the importance of reducing the jail population and moving detainees off the island.

Lancman and criminal justice reform advocates — like the team of Legal Aid Society defense attorneys seated in the third row of the auditorium — say closing Rikers is an inseparable component of a mission to reduce the number of low-income people of color in jail and prison. In Queens and nationwide, people of color make up a vastly disproportionate number of prison inmates and jail detainees.

Many sit in jail simply because they cannot afford to make bail, Lancman said.

“I cannot think of anything that is more worthwhile than building a criminal justice system that is fair,” Lancman said. “The criminal justice system I aspire to is one where no one is sitting in jail because they don’t have the resources to buy their way out.”

Lancman brought up the experience of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old from the Bronx who was arrested for stealing a backpack and held on Rikers for three years — including two in solitary confinement — before his nonviolent C Felony charges were dismissed. Browder could not afford his bail. Two years later, he killed himself.

Quinn took issue with what he called the Browder “narrative” that has informed much of the debate about closing Rikers.

“Kalief Browder committed suicide two years after leaving Rikers,” Quinn said.

Several audience members applauded.

“For the life of me, I can’t understand what people are clapping about,” Lancman said, before encouraging people to “search their consciences.”

Lancman, who is reportedly considering a run for D.A. in 2019, criticized the district attorney’s office for continuing to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses and fare evasion and pointed out that the D.A.s in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx have all come out in favor of closing Rikers.

In August, Mayor Bill de Blasio officially announced the city’s proposal to close Rikers and establish a “borough-based” jail in every borough except Staten Island. The Queens jail would be located at the site of the vacant Queens House of Detention near the criminal courthouse in Kew Gardens.

Before the Department of Corrections stopped detaining inmates at the House of Detention in 2002, the jail had capacity for about 500 inmates.

“It’s not going in Juniper Park, Glen Oaks, Queens College or College Point,” Lancman said. “It’s going where the jail has been.”

The plan depends on the city’s ability to reduce the Rikers population to 5,000. On Aug. 13, the jails held 8,210 people, according to Lancman’s data. That number was 8,258 on Aug. 27, according to Quinn’s data

Lancman said revising the bail system would enable low-income defendants to get off the island.

“Using the bail system to impose judgement on people is an abuse of the criminal justice system,” Lancman said. “These people are not too dangerous to be among us. They’re just too poor.”

Quinn, however, condemned the notion that Rikers detainees are in jail simply because they cannot afford bail.

“People in Rikers belong in Rikers [and] I stand by that,” he said. “They’re remanded because they are dangerous people and because when they are out on the street, they commit more crimes.”

“These are not nice people,” Quinn said later.

Quinn specifically pointed to a statistic that bailable Rikers detainees from Queens County with D Felony, E Felony, and A Misdemeanor charges have, on average, more than 6 previous felony arrests.

“What do you have to do to have six previous felony arrests?” he asked.

“Be black,” one audience member shouted.

The project description posted on the city’s website states that each of the proposed facilities will contain about 1,510 beds in addition to “support space for correctional programming” and therapeutic services, community space and parking.

The support space will feature a “public entrance and lobby, visitation space, space for detainee programs and services, health services, infirmary and therapeutic units, and administrative space,” the description states.

The plan also calls for redeveloping an existing parking lot and adding about 676 new public parking spaces. The public parking structure would be located on the northwestern portion of the project site with an entrance from the Union Turnpike service road, according to the proposal.

The debate often strayed from nuts-and-bolts issues, like the cost and timeframe, which frustrated some attendees.

Audience member Zina Zimmerman told Lancman she attended the event for a conversation on the community impact of jailhouse and parking structure development.

“This is not about race,” Zimmerman said. “It’s about putting a 30-story prison in the [neighborhood].”

But Lancman disagreed.

“It is about race. And I know that’s painful for my fellow white people to hear,” he said. “But the criminal justice system almost exclusively on people color.”

“You cannot separate the close Rikers conversation into the [new] building and then the other stuff,” he continued.

Council Member Rory Lancman debated Assistant District Attorney James Quinn on the future of Rikers Island Wednesday. // Eagle photo by David Brand