By Peter Szekely
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City's massive Rikers Island jail complex will close in as little as 10 years, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Friday, saying falling crime levels had paved the way toward shuttering the troubled facility.
The decision by the Democratic mayor follows a 9 percent drop in the city's overall crime rate over three years, and an even larger drop in the inmate population.
"If we can continue on that trajectory, it will allow us to get off Rikers Island," de Blasio told a City Hall press conference. "So Job 1 is to continue the work of reducing crime."
The mayor's announcement came as a 27-member panel that has been studying Rikers Island for more than a year prepared to unveil its findings on Sunday.
The panel will recommend a $10.6 billion plan to close Rikers and replace it with smaller jails in each of the city's five boroughs, the New York Times reported.
New York's inmate population, most of which is held on Rikers Island in the East River between the Bronx and Queens, has fallen to 9,300 from more than 11,000 three years ago, according the Elizabeth Glazer, who heads the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.
De Blasio said it would have to drop to 5,000 to close Rikers, which has been marred by widely reported cases of violence, including charges that prison guards brutally abused inmates.
Officials believe the city can reach the goal of an inmate population totaling 5,000 in 10 years. But the mayor said the timetable could be extended if the number of inmates fails to shrink quickly enough.
De Blasio's announcement was welcomed by Seymour James, chief attorney of the Legal Aid Society. The group provides free legal services to the city's indigent defendants, many of whom are awaiting trial at Rikers Island.
"From our daily interactions with clients at Rikers and their stories about rampant violence and abuse, we know first-hand the destructive consequences this facility has for the families its touched," he said.
De Blasio said he was not "buying into" the 27-member panel's reported borough-based proposal for replacement jails, but added that he wants as few new facilities as possible.
Although it will be left to his successor to complete the task, de Blasio said his agreement with City Council President Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a relentless advocate for closing the facility, was unlikely to change.
"I think it would be tough for a successor in either of our roles to turn against this decision unless they had a damn good reason," the mayor said.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Tom Brown)