The City Council of New York voted 36-13 Thursday to approve a plan to close the city's notorious jail complex on Rikers Island by 2026 in favor of four smaller jails spread out across the city.
Under the $8 billion plan, the four new or expanded jails will be located in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, closer to existing courthouses.
The proposal was born out of the conclusion of Mayor Bill de Blasio and other Democrats that mass incarceration and a massive jail complex are out of step in an era of falling crime rates. About 7,000 inmates are currently housed in Rikers each day, down from a high of almost 22,000 in 1991 during the height of the crack epidemic. The plan calls for a further reduction in the jail population to 3,300 inmates, or more than half, in the next six years.
"What we are doing today will reshape the city for generations to come and impact the lives of every New Yorker," said City Council speaker Corey Johnson on Thursday. "For decades, our city was unfair to those who became involved in the justice system, and the overwhelmingly majority who were caught up were black and brown men."
The plan is opposed by the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association and some residents of neighborhoods near the local jail sites.
Others say the move is ill-timed and will put public safety at risk.
"There is simply no way to cut the average daily jail population — which the city itself has described as 'more violent and difficult to manage' — that much more without leaving dangerous criminals on the street," wrote Rafael A. Mangual, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, before the vote to close Rikers.
Proponents of closing Rikers say the move is in keeping with a wave of other criminal justice reforms.
Simple marijuana possession cases are rarely prosecuted. A new state law goes into effect in January outlawing cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. That means fewer people are expected to be jailed while awaiting trial.
Rikers, a complex of 10 jails set on an island between Queens and the Bronx, mainly housed inmates waiting for trial. It is notorious for violence, inhumane conditions and neglect.