What spaces in New York City most affect the safety of its residents and the justice they experience? As crime in New York falls to its lowest point in modern history, what should a 21st century justice system look like, and what kinds of architecture and infrastructure do we need to support it?
New York City’s criminal justice system is at an inflection point. Over the past several decades, New York has experienced dramatic reductions in crime and incarceration that have transformed it into one of the safest large cities in the United States. In the span of a single generation, the number of homicides has decreased by more than 80%, with other serious felonies following a similar trajectory. At the same time, the city’s daily jail population has been reduced by half, from more than 20,000 in the early 1990s to less than 10,000 in 2016. In contrast to the rest of the country, which has seen incarceration rates skyrocket in that same period (from an estimated 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2013), New York City has demonstrated that reducing crime and incarceration can happen simultaneously, challenging an assumption that more jail equals more safety.
But even as crime and incarceration have fallen, the conditions on Rikers Island–the complex of ten jails on a 400-acre island in the East River that serves as the City’s principal correctional facility–have continued to deteriorate. It is the grim reality of Rikers that led then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in 2016 to convene an independent commission to explore “how we can get the population of Rikers [Island] to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.” After more than a year’s worth of research, public meetings, and interviews, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration issued a report in April 2017 that called for “a twenty-first century criminal justice system that…is animated by a new set of affirmative goals–keeping people safe, aiding victims, responding to community needs, and crafting proportionate, meaningful, and compassionate responses to unlawful behavior.” When it came to the future of Rikers Island, the Commission was unequivocal–“it is a stain on our great City” and must be closed, a recommendation that the De Blasio Administration adopted as official City policy. Planning is now underway, led by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, to replace it with a network of borough-based jails.
Amidst this citywide conversation, Open House New York announces the launch of Spaces of Justice, a yearlong series of tours, panel discussions, and other public programs that will allow the public to examine firsthand the spaces with primary responsibility for producing safety and rendering justice in New York City. The series will provide a platform for those who know the system from the inside—including judges, police and corrections officers, public health practitioners, housing advocates, activists, and people with lived experience of arrest and incarceration—to share their perspectives, and help broaden the public debate about what a twenty-first century justice system in New York looks like. “The road ahead,” wrote the Independent Commission in its report, “is as much about changing mindsets as it is about specific policies or new facilities.”
The stakes are incredibly high. The Commission projected a new system of jails would cost $9.85 billion, making it one of the most expensive public infrastructure projects in the City’s history. More importantly, a change of such wide-reaching scope will inevitably transform every aspect of our criminal justice system. But the cost of the status quo is equally costly. Crime and violence have tremendous financial and psychological impacts on our neighborhoods, and New Yorkers pay this toll even in times of safety. Police, prosecutors, and jails together account for nearly one-tenth of the City’s budget–$7 billion in 2018. And the heaviest burden falls on the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who face arrest each year, and the tens of thousands who cycle in and out of jail, the vast majority of whom are people of color.
Throughout the rest of this year and into early 2019, Open House New York will open an array of buildings and sites that illuminate how safety and justice are shaped by the physical spaces in which they take place. Some of the spaces communicate outdated ideas of what justice should look like, monumental buildings of stone and marble designed to humble and awe. Other spaces are so routine as to escape notice, like the police station houses that dot every neighborhood or the offices and rooms in which social services are delivered. Still others use design in innovative ways to give communities the power to craft their own approaches to fostering safety in their neighborhoods. In visiting these spaces, participants will be able to examine the ideas and attitudes that underpin them. Without thoroughly understanding those ideas, we will be limited in the reforms that can be achieved.
Spaces of Justice is sweeping in scope—ranging from sites of policing and adjudication to those for rehabilitation and reentry—because these spaces are deeply interrelated and cannot be understood in isolation. It is expansive, reflecting how the criminal justice system is often asked to solve problems that have more to do with poverty, mental illness, or addiction than criminality. The series will also consider how our City’s pursuit of justice and community well-being are bigger than safety alone, as declines in crime spur development that in turn threatens to displace longtime residents.
Experiencing these spaces of justice firsthand prompts tough but necessary questions about how we think about crime and safety, how we balance risks, and how we reconcile with behaviors that undermine our city’s safety. The City is at a crossroads, one that will reshape for decades to come not just its physical landscape, but its very moral core. Spaces of Justice will help us to appreciate the gravity of the questions before us, the practical difficulties of solving them, and the transformative possibilities if we succeed.
We invite you to join us as we launch Spaces of Justice with a special conversation on May 30 with Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and Stanley Richards, Executive Vice President of The Fortune Society, moderated by Rosalie Genevro, Executive Director of The Architectural League. Click here for more information, and to make reservations.
Want to know more? Check our Resources page for suggested reading.
Spaces of Justice is made possible with an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by the Reba Judith Sandler Foundation.
Photos (top to bottom): Jannis Werner/Alamy Stock Photo; AP/Seth Wenig; The Fortune Society; Jeff Goldberg; The Bridge.