Academic journal article Social Justice

Rebranding Mass Incarceration: The Lippman Commission and Carceral Devolution in New York City

Academic journal article Social Justice

Rebranding Mass Incarceration: The Lippman Commission and Carceral Devolution in New York City

Article excerpt

Abstract

In 2017, after a yearlong study of the conditions on Rikers Island, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform (the Lippman Commission) released its recommendations to close the last penal colony in the United States and replace it with a series of neighborhood-based jails and enhanced community supervision. The commission was spearheaded by former Court of Appeals Judge Jonathan Lippman in collaboration with nonprofits. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged support to the plan. This article examines the Lippman Commission report and its recommendations to close Rikers Island as a contemporary case study in local decarceration and carceral devolution. We outline theories of decarceration and carceral devolution, highlight their centrality to the movement to close Rikers Island through a close reading of the Lippman Commission report, and conclude with reflections on what this change in New York City's carceral philosophy means for contemporary social justice movements.

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"WE MUST REPLACE OUR CURRENT MODEL OF MASS INCARCERATION with something that is more effective and more humane," writes Judge Jonathan Lippman (2017, 3) in the introduction to A More Just City, the final report of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. (1) The report calls for radically downsizing the New York City jail system, closing the Rikers Island complex, and relocating its remaining population to smaller facilities in the downtown of each borough. A subsequent report, Justice in Design (2017), drafted by a commission subcommittee in partnership with the nonprofit Van Alen Institute, proposes designs for these new jails. As the present New York City jail population hovers around 9,000, (2) the commission's plan to populate these new jails hinges on cutting the citywide jail population in half, through a combination of bail reform and community-based surveillance, to be accomplished through an expansion of alternatives to incarceration, programs that create new social roles for nonprofit organizations and the Department of Probation. Noticeably absent in the commission's recommendations are substantive programs for employment, public housing, and material assistance.

The commission arose, in its words, at a "unique moment" (Lippman Commission 2017, 22). Few, if any, of its ideas are new; the floor plan for the new jails, despite being touted as the product of a participatory action research project with directly affected community members, is an old model that has been in place at the Manhattan Detention Complex--known as the "Tombs"--for decades (ibid., 79). The present moment is unique not because of its bold new ideas, but because of the possibility of discrediting old ones. Mass incarceration as the primary means of managing poverty and urban marginality has entered a crisis of legitimacy alongside its guiding ideology, law and order. It is no longer a coherent political project with broad-based support. In fact, even though Jeff Sessions, Trump's former attorney general, vowed to renew the war on drugs, politicians across the spectrum, motivated largely by fiscal concerns, have sought to curtail the state's reliance on incarceration. We find ourselves in a crucial moment, when the status quo is no longer tenable, and radical offerings can move from the margins to the center of political debate. This is the moment enjoyed by Judge Lippman and his cohort of criminal justice reformers. Such an opportunity, we argue, is not to be squandered. This is why we have adopted such a critical stance toward many reformers with whose fundamental ambition--the reduction, to an absolute minimum, of people locked in cages--we wholeheartedly agree, despite a number of grave reservations about their methods for achieving it. As scholars of penal transformation, we believe that previous historical moments can offer some important perspective for understanding criminal justice reform and carceral state formation. …

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