In the latest move in his ongoing public-relations campaign, embattled Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg on Friday sent a memo to his line prosecutors that partially undid his controversial Day One memo.
In the new notice, Bragg wrote that “the Memorandum has been a source of confusion, rather than clarity,” and reiterated his trust in his ADAs’ discretion. In addition, he reversed two stipulations of the previous memo. In Manhattan from here on, robberies that involve a firearm will be prosecuted as such—even if the gun is unloaded—and gun possession will be prosecuted as a standalone felony. Bragg also repeated that his office will prosecute violence against police officers.
Bragg’s memo was reported as a significant shift, part of a wave of headlines that have confused his attempts to smooth over the crisis for genuine policy change. Friday’s alterations are welcome, but they ultimately fail to address the concerns critics have been raising about Bragg’s policies since he took office.
Consider Bragg’s insistence that “violence against police officers will not be tolerated.” Nothing in his original memo contradicted this. Rather, the concern is that Bragg’s decision not to prosecute resisting arrest per se will remove a disincentive that stops otherwise-apprehended felons from fleeing. Similarly, Bragg has made no change to his near-total ban on the use of life without parole, or his instruction that ADAs treat adult defendants under 25 as cognitively similar to juveniles, a unilateral raising of the age of criminal competency that flies in the face of the high offense rates of young adults.
More generally, Bragg has not flinched from his “immutable” commitment to “making incarceration a matter of last resort.” In Manhattan, today as yesterday, only offenders who commit a narrow set of offenses will face pretrial detention or posttrial incarceration. As I have written previously, even if Bragg does not charge creatively to avoid mandatory minimums, his stated policy still would allow stalkers, rioters, and some who assault children to walk free, as well as affording freedom post-arrest to a great many offenders simply because they have not yet committed the most serious offenses.
As my colleague Robert VerBruggen wrote previously in City Journal, Bragg’s assertion that this decarceral agenda will actually reduce crime stretches the evidence on incarceration and crime beyond breaking. In reality, meaningfully reducing the population of Rikers and New York state prisons necessarily means releasing violent or serial offenders back on to the streets—people who will inevitably pose a threat to public safety.
Manhattanites, then, should not be fooled. While Bragg has taken a step in the right direction, he has miles still to go. One cheer for him—but let us hope there is far more to come.
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images