One flew over Rikers Island…

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There is no secret that Corey Johnson, the current speaker of the New York City Council, is wasting no time getting his feet wet at shaping the future of the city “he loves” and obviously wants to run as the next mayor.  No official announcements have been made yet but the evidence is there. Johnson looks and sounds resolute and straightforward unveiling ambitious plans pushing for a criminal justice reform as well as changing the city’s mass transit system.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiling his criminal justice initiative at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Contributed photo.

Mr. Johnson’s first policy speech on criminal justice reform was delivered on May 16th at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The address was centered around dropping the number of incarcerations in the city, giving the judges new tools to stop sending people to jail for minor violations, adjusting court fees, loosening rules on bail bonds and diverting the mentally ill to outpatient treatment and rehabilitation programs. Citing “no easy solution” Johnson pledged to clean “the stain on the city’s soul”, i.e. Rikers Island.

For the record, the jail complex opened in 1932 has an annual budget of about a million dollars; it employs 9,000 officers and 1,500 civilians managing an average daily population between 5,000 and 10,000 inmates. Statistics show that roughly 85% of the detainees have not been convicted of a crime while the rest are serving short sentences.

The leitmotif is not new. Earlier, Bill de Blasio suggested replacing the 400-acre correction facility with four smaller jails in every borough except Staten Island by 2027. Corey Johnson followed suit setting up a city commission, convened by the previous speaker and led by Jonathan Lippman, a former New York State chief judge, who dubbed Rikers Island as the most “miserable, inhumane and brutalizing place” in NYC in dire need of change.

Rikers Island has not always been 415 acres in size. Originally it was only 90 acres big. The rest is landfill. The expanded island is conveniently located between the Bronx and Queens very close to the runways of LaGuardia Airport, which covers 680 acres and is often referred to as “USS LaGuardia” since the runways are short and surrounded by water. Boeing 737 is the largest jet that can take off or land there.

Here comes a thought: what about the second ambitious plan put forward by Corey Johnson, i.e. drastically reshaping the city’s mass transit system? Why not kill two birds with one stone? In early March Johnson delivered a speech at LaGuardia Community College calling for municipal control over subways and buses. Why not airports? Currently, a very New York LaGuardia airport, named after a mayor of the city, is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a joint venture of two states. In 2015 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a reconstruction plan aimed to completely replace the existing airport by the year 2026.

The thought is simple: vacate Rikers Island, develop it and expand a modernized LaGuardia! Take it away from the state and give it to the city! Who would oppose or resist a desire to finance and develop a major hub in almost walking distance of Manhattan that could serve well a bold Johnson in his coming quest to win the mayoral race after De Blasio’s departure.

The future looks bright. Justice will be reformed. The mentally ill will be free to walk the safer streets of New York City occasionally moving from one transit housing to another. Real thugs will be jailed closer to courts and homes. Inequality will dwindle. Bikes will beat suspended driver’s licenses and jumbo jets will be taking off and landing on flattened memories of Rikers Island… No more Moses, LaGuardia, Cuomo or De Blasio! Only Johnson!

Sarcasm and cynicism aside, I hope that Johnson’s reformistic altruism married to a cold calculation will do the city good regardless who will run it as mayor. Skepticism stays: hope dies last.