Shrinking the Financial—and Human—Cost of Jail in New York City

Shrinking The Financial And Human Cost Of Jail In Nyc Blog Hero
Shrinking The Financial And Human Cost Of Jail In Nyc Figure 1

This means that in order to substantially reduce the size of the jail and the amount of jail spending, the city needs to address felony cases. This would require new and bold approaches to both reduce admissions to jail for those people who have been accused of more serious charges and to shorten their often long lengths of stay. The recent report from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform recommends a number of potential strategies, such as expanding crime prevention initiatives, drastically reducing the use of cash bail in favor of pretrial supervision, and reducing case processing delays for all cases.

Shrinking Jail Operations

Because employee salaries and benefits make up the vast majority of jail spending, jurisdictions also must reduce staffing levels to achieve significant cost savings. In New York City, this has proven difficult in the past. Even as the population in New York City’s jail declined by 54 percent since 1992 (from more than 21,000 to less than 10,000), the number of corrections officers decreased by only 17 percent over the same period. This means that, although there was approximately one corrections officer for every two people held in the jail in 1992, there were actually more corrections officers than people held in the jail by 2016. In addition, corrections spending has also increased in recent years. Since 2001, the Department of Correction’s operating budget has grown by 17 percent, despite the dramatic drop in the jail size and the decline in jail employment.

Shrinking The Financial And Human Cost Of Jail In Nyc Figure 2

Many jurisdictions find it challenging to downsize their operations despite a decrease in the number of people held in the jail. The aging infrastructure of Rikers Island, as well as persistently high rates of violence in the jail, may have made the city hesitant to downsize in lockstep with the decline in the jail population. But the proposed closing of Rikers offers a significant opportunity to achieve true savings by carefully rethinking all operations decisions that would fit the new, smaller jail population. And as it seeks to reform the violence that dogged Rikers for so many years, now is a prime moment for the city to reexamine not only what it spends on jails, but the results it receives for its spending.

New York City has successfully dropped its jail population over several decades, running contrary to the trend towards greater local incarceration in many parts of the country. The mayor’s recent proposal to close Rikers has created an opportunity for the city to reduce the size of the jail even further, in particular through tackling felony and more serious cases that are often overlooked in reform conversations. The move to downsize also creates an opportunity for the city to reevaluate its operations and make different choices regarding staffing and infrastructure. By tackling both the jail population and operations in tandem, the city can reduce the human toll of jail incarceration while freeing up city resources for other crucial priorities.