There’s no doubt that the advisory group’s aims are ambitious. NYC’s overall decline in the use of jail means that many women charged with low-level offenses or first-time charges have their cases resolved without spending any time at Rikers—of the 57,119 women arrested across the five boroughs in 2014, less than 12 percent were detained. The women who do end up in jail often have lengthy criminal justice histories or open warrants from past cases. More than half are facing felony charges. But recent research has shown that jail doesn’t always equal public safety. In fact, just a few days in jail can have the opposite effect and increase a defendant’s likelihood of being arrested in the future. Accompanying their legal issues, the women who enter Rikers, statistically, have long trauma histories, mental health issues, and multiple social service needs, which are difficult to adequately and thoroughly address in correctional settings. The alternatives we develop will have to be multifaceted and able to support women facing a complex set of challenges in making long-term and sustainable change.
Traditionally, diversion options have only been offered to people facing lower-level misdemeanor or first-time nonviolent felony charges. To seriously reduce the number of women in jail at Rikers, new programming will have to push the boundaries of our traditional models to include those who have been cycling in and out of the justice system for a long time. Most of the participants will be women who have seen the inside of jail more than once. Once in operation, police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges will be equipped with less disruptive and more effective community-based options for women in the justice system. This will further reduce the presence of Rikers Island in the lives of all New Yorkers, including women with deep system involvement, making our communities safer places for all.