It’s commonly said that a budget is a reflection of values, and that truism feels especially pertinent now, when we’re in the midst of city budget season. As this process unfolds in the coming months, we look forward to seeing this administration’s enthusiasm for addressing both public safety and equity demonstrated through its funding decisions. In particular, we look forward to seeing recommendations from the Rikers Island Closure and Community Investment Commission included in the Council’s proposed version and, ultimately, in the city’s final budget.
It is indisputable that one of the best ways to reduce mass incarceration is to invest in individuals and communities. We know this well from our experiences living and working in communities scarred by disinvestment: for Darren, who grew up in Bushwick in the 1990s and went to Rikers as a teenager, and for Jeremy, who runs a charity serving children and families who are often affected by the damaging impacts of racial segregation and underinvestment.
It is imperative that we focus on preventing people from becoming involved in the justice system in the first place, as well as preventing recidivism at an early age. Of course, while the main benefits of reducing violence are improving overall safety and breaking cycles of trauma in our communities, we cannot ignore how prevention provides dramatic cost savings. The city spends half a million dollars to jail someone on Rikers Island for a year, money that would be better invested in our communities.
With these goals in mind, the Commission and its subcommittees, including the Youth Subcommittee of which we were members, developed detailed recommendations, most of which have yet to be implemented or incorporated into city plans.
The subcommittee was guided by a commitment to work collaboratively with youth and communities, embrace a more holistic, research-backed definition of public safety rooted in wellness principles, incorporate trauma-informed practices, and ultimately promote dignity and justice. for all young people.
Our recommendations include scaling the “Healthy Start” initiative, supporting two-generation program models, and expanding the proven work of Cure Violence organizations. Another suggestion is to scale up the “Next Steps Transformative Mentoring Program,” which uses credible messengers to engage young men in communities with higher rates of violence through weekly meetups.
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At The Children’s Village, we witness how mentoring and a supportive community that fosters vulnerability really does change lives. But the use of these programs is limited by resources and carried out on a relatively small scale.
We also propose to expand the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) throughout the year. We appreciate Mayor Adams’ commitment to expanding the summer model, we strongly believe that young adults need employment opportunities beyond July and August. Too many of our youth remain disconnected from school, and in New York City, our youth compete with adults for jobs. We need to deploy new approaches. At The Children’s Village, for example, we’ve seen the incredible impact a paid internship can have on a young person’s motivation, confidence, and aspirations.
Finally, a key part of achieving these goals is to complement prevention with interventions that reduce incarceration and prevent recidivism. Connecting every youth who comes into contact with the justice system with family and community support resources at the time of their initial involvement can have a tremendous effect.
And in the case of incarceration, we should always be planning for the day that the incarceration ends. To accomplish this, we need better coordination and ways to navigate proven community resources, prioritizing, and developing more comprehensive models.
We recognize that implementing any or all of these recommendations would be an important task for the City. We know that the Mayor and his administration are committed to making a big difference in both public safety and equity. That is exactly what the commission set out to do.
We urge the Mayor to implement these recommendations and move forward with the plan to close Rikers that was designed by people in the communities most affected by underinvestment and excessive incarceration. We know this will not be easy, but we stand ready to support the work of the mayor and his administration through this ambitious but necessary plan. Preventing incarceration on a significant scale has the potential to transform this city into the best version of itself.
Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda, and Kohomban, executive director of The Children’s Village, are members of New York City’s Rikers Island Closure and Community Investment Commission.