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Massive Price Tags and Meager Results: The Legacy of Federal Monitors in New York City

by Benjamin Tschirhart

From payoffs to teachers over biased tests to oversight for excessive force in New York City jails, there’s money in being a federal monitor for New York City agencies. But are the results worth the incredible outlay by taxpayers?

The history of these monitors and “special masters” appointed by federal courts to oversee New York City’s agencies goes back to the 1970s and a lawsuit against the city’s Department of Correction (DOC). Brought by a group of pretrial detainees subjected to brutal and inhumane conditions in jail, the suit’s 1982 settlement created the Office of Compliance Consultants (OCC), which is still a big line item on the City’s budget to this day. The expenses don’t stop there; in the 30-plus years since that first appointment, the Big Apple has been forced to feed growing slices of its budget to ever more numerous and costly monitors appointed by federal courts to oversee consent decrees with city agencies.

According to a tally published by the New York Post in February 2022, the price tag stands at $111 million and counting. That includes all payments to monitors for DOC, the Board of Education, the Office of Children and Family Services, the Department of Transportation and the Housing Authority, as well as a “diversity monitor” for hiring and recruitment practices in the city Fire Department.

But for all the millions spent to date, it’s difficult to identify results that are worth the cost. Forty years after OCC was created to reform city jails, the situation is still horrific and growing steadily worse; according to the Legal Aid Society, “conditions in the jails are deteriorating at an exponential rate.” PLN has reported extensively on the mess that is the city’s Rikers Island jail complex. [See, for example: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.1; May 2022, p.54; and Oct. 2022, p.24.] As city councilman Keith Powers (D) noted, DOC “has failed to provide even basic services” even after 40 years of oversight.

The most ironic comments on the situation come from Steven Bastian, a former warden at Rikers Island and a 31-year veteran of DOC. He accuses the monitors of tactics that have long been attributed to law enforcement and correctional officers themselves; he complains that these officials justify their own existence by expanding the definitions of “excessive force” and by reporting more violations than actually take place. “You can’t win!” Bastian laments.

In another spectacularly tone-deaf statement, the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association — which represents DOC guards — claims that both the agency and its monitors are incompetent: “if the current monitoring team hasn’t been able to compel any significant progress ... in five years, then perhaps it is time for a new monitor.”

It does not seem to occur to the critics that by their reasoning, an argument might be made for replacing DOC itself. Legal Aid Society spokesperson Redmond Haskins answers these complaints with the sort of response long favored by law enforcement officers themselves: “The quickest way to end a monitorship is to stop violating the law.” 

Source: New York Post

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