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Council speaker Mark-Viverito hits ‘naysayers’ on closing Rikers

On Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, New York City

On Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito delivered her second State of the City address, "More Justice," at the Samuel Gompers Campus in the South Bronx. Credit: John Roca

New York City’s council speaker hit back at “naysayers” who are skeptical of her push to stop jailing inmates on violence-plagued Rikers Island. Her usual ally, Mayor Bill de Blasio, is the most prominent of the doubters.

Speaking at a business leaders breakfast Thursday, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito predicted that her related initiatives, such as lower penalties for petty offenses and allowing arrestees to tap a city-sponsored bail fund, would reduce the population at Rikers, the city’s main jail complex. The current headcount is more than 7,500 inmates.

“When we look at ways that we’re going to downsize the population at Rikers, you know, we can get to a point where we can probably deal with it on a neighborhood level,” she told about 300 people gathered for the Crain’s New York Business breakfast at the New York Athletic Club.

Separately, on de Blasio’s citywide zoning changes before the council to mandate below-market-rate housing, she said that she “definitely” expects to see tweaks, such as units that are more affordable to those with lower incomes.

Still, she said, “we can’t please everybody,” and “there’s gonna be people that are just opposed to any development.”

On Feb. 11, Mark-Viverito (D-East Harlem) proposed the Rikers shutdown, which has since gotten support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. De Blasio, while voicing sympathy for the “noble concept,” has said it is not viable now, largely because it would cost “many billions of dollars” to provide alternative jails. Mark-Viverito says that the city could save money now spent busing inmates to and from distant courts from Rikers.

The head of the biggest jail guards union, Norman Seabrook, is skeptical of the closure, as is NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, who has dismissed it idea as “a lot of hot air”: “You want to take them off an island away from everybody and put them in a neighborhood?” he said earlier this month.

But Mark-Viverito said she has been unmoved by doubters.

“These are our families, these are our children, these are our neighbors. Let’s humanize the situation, right?” She added: “There are always going to be the naysayers on any issue.”

Rikers is being probed by the U.S. Justice Department, which has said the complex is beset by a “deep-seated culture of violence.”

Mark-Viverito also defended the council over the collapse earlier this month of de Blasio’s years-in-the-making plan to shrink the horse-drawn carriage industry.

The deal died after the Teamsters union, which represents the carriage drivers, pulled out of a proposed compromise agreement just days before the scheduled vote by the council members.

“I could have tried to ram it down their throats, right?” she said. “But that’s just not who I am.”

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