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Rikers Population Falls Below 10,000 For First Time in Decades

 The entrance to Rikers Island.
The entrance to Rikers Island.
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Katie Honan/DNAinfo

EAST ELMHURST — The number of inmates at Riker's Island has fallen below 10,000 for the first time in decades, according to the Department of Corrections.

The jail's average daily population is currently in the 9,000 range, said DOC spokesman Jeff Jacomowitz, compared to just above 14,000 in 2007, according to a Board of Corrections report. The numbers are down from about 21,000 in 1990.

The city's jail population is about two-thirds pretrial detainees, according to the city's Independent Budget Office. Almost 18 percent of the Rikers inmates are there for drug offenses, and hundreds — the fourth-largest group, using DOC's categories — are there for parole violations and other "warrants and holds."

 

Both Bradley Ballard, the mentally ill man who died after days of neglect at Rikers, and Kenan Davis, who died in Rikers' most recent suicide on June 10, were incarcerated on parole violations, according to reports and DOC.

Approximately 40 percent of those housed at Rikers have a psychiatric diagnosis, of which about a third exhibit major psychotic illness, according to a 2013 report.

After a New Yorker report on Kalief Browder, who at age 16 was taken into custody for three years on the wrongful accusation of stealing a backpack, and the widespread attention to Ballard's death, the city has launched new initiatives to clear out the pretrial backlog and divert people with mental health or substance abuse issues from jail.

Martin Horn, the city's former DOC commissioner, told DNAinfo that authorities frequently didn't consider the human toll of sending people to the jail.

"It didn’t cost the DAs or judges," he said. "People are coming to realize that there are costs."

Nearly a thousand people awaiting trial have been detained longer than a year, according to figures from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, but that population has dropped by hundreds in recent months.

Thirty-six percent of the 1,427 pending cases with a defendant detained more than a year had been disposed in the last two months, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice said. Their Justice Reboot program, announced in April, aims to clear half the backlog in six months.

The decreased population at Rikers means the Department of Corrections could move people out of housing that was never meant to be permanent, including tennis bubble-like "Sprung" and modular units, or "mods," according to horn. They could also be moved out of aging units like the Anna M. Kross Center.

"There are still people living in these housing units in these old jails," Horn said. "These are terrible buildings to begin with."