Beyond a Broken System on Justice Reform in New York City

Beyond a Broken System: The closure of Rikers Island created an opportunity to rethink New York City’s prisons. But critics of the U.S. carceral system discourage architects from participating in a justice system defined by disparity, Oculus, Winter, 2021


When any administrative body opts to deprive an individual of liberty based on the belief that it serves the greater social good, an extraordinary amount of modesty and restraint are warranted. We are told that the U.S. justice system allows defendants due process, equal justice under the law, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty. In practice, we know that many people get caught in “the system” for radically arbitrary reasons, corrupted by unjust and unequal processes. The mechanistic grinding of the system subjects millions to incarceration or supervision. Deep-seated legacies of discrimination go unaddressed. Countless are sentenced for crimes they didn’t commit, or are detained for extended periods because of slow trials and lack of cash for court fees, bail, and attorneys. 


In June 2016, the city council reforms passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act, replacing criminal charges with civil penalties for many low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as open containers of alcohol, public urination, littering, and jumping subway turnstiles. Ninety percent of criminal court summons-es were eliminated in the following year. Diversion programs to assessment and community service offered alternatives to incarceration for young people and those with mental health and other issues. The city worked to clear hundreds of thou-sands of outstanding warrants for minor criminal offenses, more than 800,000 of them issued more than 10 years earlier and only 3% of them for felonies, the rest for administrative code violations, infractions, and misdemeanors. These types of judicial and procedural reforms have reduced New York City’s jail population by more than half since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, from 10,912 in 2014 to below 4,000 as of April 2020. 


If the de Blasio Administration achieves only one significant victory during its tenure—for all its shortcomings and inattention to detail—the program to reform the justice system would be a change worthy of great acclaim. Certain members of the public worry that the jails may become too good. If jails were too comfortable, wouldn’t more people want to go there? The complaint reveals how much farther we have to go in planning the non-carceral world.