NY State Of Progress: What Closing Of Rikers, Raise The Age & Tuition-Free College Really Mean

In the two weeks, New York City and the NY state as a whole have made landmark announcements in regards to criminal justice reform and higher education reform.

For the former, there is Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s plan to close Rikers Island in 10 years, as well as the “Raise The Age” bill from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, under which 16 and 17 year-olds will no longer be persecuted as adult criminals. For the latter, there is The Excelsior Scholarship, a tuition-free program directed toward poor and middle-class New York students that cannot afford college.

However, these announcements, when explored further, are more than what their headlines present. Sure, they sound great, but what exactly comes with such changes, and when and how exactly will they be implemented? We took a deeper look.

Criminal Justice Reform:

June will mark the two-year anniversary of the death of Kalief Browder, who was convicted of a crime he did not commit as a 16-year-old in 2010. Browder was sent to prison for three years (two of which were spent at Rikers). In 2013, five days prior to turning 20, Browder was released from prison. In 2015, shortly after turning 22, he committed suicide.

In Browder’s memory are his brothers Akeem and Deion Browder, with the former being the founder of the Campaign To Shut Down Rikers Island. Both have been vocal recently, speaking not only to the news of Rikers’ foreseeable closing and Raise The Age, but also about their brother who used his last remaining years to tell a story that needed to be told. Thanks in part to Jay Z, Kalief’s life is immortalized in TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, an unflinching look into the young adult’s life before and after his time at Rikers.

Surely, Kalief’s story resurfacing has contributed to de Blasio’s change of heart for wanting to close Rikers. But a new election season is approaching, which is why people such as Akeem are skeptical of de Blasio’s plan (or lack thereof).

Let’s start with the obvious. In 10 years de Blasio will no longer be mayor of New York and the responsibility of closing Rikers likely to fall on his successor. He also stated that the prison could only be closed if its inmate population was reduced to 5,000 (about half of Riker’s current population). Aside from that, de Blasio did not address where inmates would be put in the time following Rikers’ closing and before the opening of proposed smaller jails across the city, nor the inevitable fury that will come from New Yorkers that do not want new prisons built near their home bases.

The report that details the plans to close the jail, led by the New York’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, suggests that inmates be moved to one jail in each borough, with the jails located in downtown areas that are attached to or near the county courthouse. New jails would be built and jails that already exist would be expanded and renovated.

The plan has already received opposition but the city needs new jails in order to dismantle Rikers for good. What has a greater pull?

Raise The Age:

Coinciding with that is the “Raise The Age” bill. Before Monday of this week, New York was still one of two states (the other being North Carolina) that viewed 16 and 17 year-olds as adults in Criminal Court. Now, that is no longer the case — kind of.

For 16 and 17 year-olds accused of misdemeanors (which make up the majority of juveniles arrested), they will have their cases handled in Family Court. However, those with nonviolent felony cases will still start in Criminal Court but be part of a new section called “youth part.”

Unless a district attorney proves “extraordinary circumstances” on the accused teenager, they will automatically be sent to Family Court after 30 days. Those arrested in violent felony cases are treated the same as those arrested in nonviolent felony cases. However, those for the former can be removed from “youth part” if they pass a three-part test:

  1. Whether the victim sustained significant physical injury
  2. Whether the accused used a weapon
  3. Whether the perpetrator engaged in criminal sexual conduct

The bill also states that juvenile offenders will no longer be placed in county jails, but that does not start until next year. Beginning on October 1, 2018, offenders below 17 will not be held in county jails; the same goes for 18 year-olds the following year.

So at the very least, it’s reassuring to know that juvenile offenders will not be sent to Rikers and suffer a similar fate to that of Kalief. However, in the interim, until this takes effect until late next year, current young offenders may still be sent to county jails and subjected to deplorable experiences and conditions.

New York’s new Excelsior Scholarship:

Lastly, there’s New York’s new Excelsior Scholarship. What makes New York different from other states (Tennessee, Oregon) that offer free tuition, is that it is the first state to do so for both two-year and four-year public colleges.

However, the program has its limitations. When the Excelsior Scholarship states that it wants to provide free tuition to middle and working-class students, it means exactly that. Living expenses, books, fees — none of that will be covered under the program. To be eligible the recipient hast to be attending school full time, maintain a certain grade point average, and be on track to graduate in two to four years.

The scholarship primarily benefits students that go straight to college after high school, with the intention of graduating within that time frame. The program is not available for those that attend college part-time and is seemingly based on creating an incentive to attend school full time.

As the New York Times reports:

“At the state’s community colleges, more than 90 percent of students would not qualify for free tuition based on those requirements. Even at its four-year colleges, 60 percent would be ineligible.”

So those that would arguably benefit most from the scholarship can’t access the program anyways, solely having to rely on other scholarships received, as well as grants and state aid.

But the most divisive aspect of the Excelsior Scholarship seems to be, that recipients of the award must live and work in New York for as long as they received the scholarship. If that commitment is broken, then the tuition grant becomes a loan that must be paid back.

As the first of its kind, the Excelsior Scholarship has good intentions. But as one can see its accessibility is limited, making the program achievable for a small portion of students.

Progress takes time and is complex, and although these announcements are a reflection of the necessary change that will hopefully encourage other parts of the nation to follow suit in their own respective ways, it’s also further proof that New York is just getting started in regards to inciting reform in more ways than one.

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NY State Of Progress: What Closing Of Rikers, Raise The Age & Tuition-Free College Really Mean