Publications and Research

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 12-2020


Over the last decade, long before the far-reaching impact of COVID-19, the criminal legal system in New York City was on a meandering path toward decarceration. Set against the national backdrop of declining crime rates and a reckoning with the economic, social, and racial costs of mass criminalization and incarceration, elected officials in New York City and State had finally acknowledged that a shift toward reducing the number of people held in New York City jails was long overdue. Sweeping legislative reforms to bail, discovery, and speedy trial statutes, as well as the planned closure of Rikers Island, the city’s large, notoriously violent jail complex, promised to lead to a drastic reshaping of New York’s criminal legal system. Notwithstanding significant concerns that investing in the construction of new jails to replace Rikers Island was a misguided way to reduce the City’s reliance on incarceration, New York City’s “historic decarceration plan” was beginning to move forward.

Then in March of 2020, with the emergence of COVID-19 in New York City, advocates and public defenders began to warn public officials about the impending public health crisis of COVID-19 and the need for the rapid reduction of the population of people held on Rikers Island. In short measure, decarceration took on a new and more urgent meaning in the New York City criminal legal system. Predictably, many of the institutional actors charged with depopulating City jails defaulted to outmoded, regressive ideas about public safety even when the lives of detained people and City employees were at stake.

This Article examines how the City’s broader, long term decarceration agenda can be informed by the lessons learned from the efforts to rapidly depopulate Rikers Island during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. By examining the history of decarceration activism and efforts in New York City before the pandemic and the wavering systemic response to the COVID-19 outbreak in City jails, the Article contends that prospects for meaningful long term decarceration are not promising. The Article proposes movement away from deeply entrenched, punitive practices and policies and more expansive investment in non-carceral services and institutions. It also highlights how the economic instability brought about by COVID-19 will undoubtedly makes these shifts, which requires financial and ideological support, all the more necessary and complex.


This work was originally published in the Fordham Urban Law Journal.



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