Alvin Bragg, Manhattan’s new district attorney, faces tough questions about his radical vision for criminal justice in New York City. Apparently surprised by the criticism of his agenda, he has pushed back, pointing out that he ran for office promising to reform prosecution in Manhattan and is merely doing what he was “overwhelmingly elected” to do.
Though Bragg won a low-turnout election, he was transparent during his campaign about his plans to seek non-carceral outcomes for virtually all crimes, not to prosecute illegal possession of guns in the absence of a shooting, and to make every effort to downgrade felonies to misdemeanors. “Reserving incarceration for matters involving significant harm,” he believes, “will make us safer” (emphasis his).
The idea that putting fewer people in jail necessarily leads to a safer community is a commonly repeated notion on the progressive left, though how this supposedly works tends not to be explained. According to Bragg, the key is offering social-service intervention instead of carceral solutions. “Well-designed initiatives,” the DA explains in his recent “Day 1” memo, “that support and stabilize people—particularly individuals in crisis and youth—can conserve resources, reduce re-offending, and diminish the collateral harms of criminal prosecution.” Criminal charges, insists Bragg, must be tailored according to the needs of the criminal. The mentally ill, the homeless, those committing “crimes of poverty,” and people with substance-abuse problems must face charges “consistent with the goal of providing services to such individuals.”
Progressives often argue that major cities, allegedly addicted to locking up their most miserable residents, have ignored the importance of finding alternatives to incarceration. But New York City has been “diverting” criminals into treatment for decades. In collaboration with the state, the city’s oft-cited Center for Court Innovation has developed courts for wayward youth, domestic abusers, “johns,” drug addicts, the mentally ill, and former inmates reentering society. It was founded during Rudy Giuliani’s first term and expanded radically under Michael Bloomberg. Moreover, New York is not lacking in social-service provision. Under Bill de Blasio, the city budget exploded, with massive increases in spending on homelessness, mental illness, youth programs, and housing. How much more low-hanging fruit is available that New York’s vast social-service complex hasn’t reached for yet?
Bragg’s evident naïveté about the tens of billions of dollars that the city already spends trying to connect its underclass to services is one thing. But he also seems confused about the meaning of his own data regarding the success of keeping people out of jail. Pretrial detention has been a hot topic since the state eliminated cash bail in almost all cases, forcing judges to return even serious, habitual criminals to “community supervision” while awaiting trial. Bail-reform supporters insist that no evidence links the policy to a rise in crime. But with a stark decline since 2020 in arrests and clearance rates, it is impossible to know who’s been committing the crimes that are, indisputably, increasing. “The data show that the overwhelming majority of those released pretrial do not commit a violent crime while at liberty,” Bragg claims. He explains that “from January–June 2021, fewer than 1% of the 45,000–50,000 people out pretrial are arrested for nonviolent or violent felonies each month.” In fact, the underlying data show that the figure is closer to 1.3 percent, which amounts to some 600 additional felonies per month—20 each day—committed in New York by people awaiting trial for some other charge. And that figure accounts only for those on pretrial release who were caught. Many more presumably are walking free.
Manhattan has elected a far-left prosecutor in the mold of San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, Chicago’s Kim Foxx, and Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner—and done so at a time when the disastrous consequences of their policies have become all too clear. Yet Boudin has already survived one attempt to recall him, and Krasner was easily reelected last November, even as Philadelphia’s murder rate broke local records. Do these cities really prefer crime to punishment? New Yorkers, judging by their responses to various polls—all showing great concern with crime and public order—do not. But they have put in office a prosecutor with very different priorities.
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