When David Soares was elected district attorney in 2004 in Albany County, New York, he enjoyed united support on the left; even the radical Working Families Party had endorsed him. A childhood immigrant from Africa, Soares doesn’t lack for “lived experience.” Over nearly 19 years in office, he’s consistently backed progressive criminal-justice reforms. But Soares is now demoralized, seemingly near tears when he tells me that no one will talk about the victims of violence, who—in Albany, as in New York City—are disproportionately young black men.

As DA, Soares has seen firsthand the role that 2017’s Raise the Age law, which significantly scaled back punishments for 16- and 17-year-old criminal offenders, played in worsening crime. Since that law passed, youth gun crime statewide has doubled—and youth gun victimization has nearly tripled. About 75 percent of violent felony cases now get handled in family court, which returns teens to the streets, where they often commit new crimes or become victims themselves of tit-for-tat gang warfare. “We witnessed the murder of a young man at the hands of another young man that had gone through the family court Raise the Age process . . . a minimum of three times,” Soares told local legislators in July. “This was a system that was never designed to handle or deal with violent—super, super violent—youth.”

Legislators have responded to his alarm with vitriol. Earlier this year, the New York State Senate’s counsel disinvited Soares from testifying at a hearing, worried that he (a black man) would talk about black crime victimization. Agency leaders, journalists, and reform advocates have denounced him for highlighting the concentration of violence in black communities and the role of misguided laws in enabling it.

Perhaps even more disheartening for Soares are calls from prominent leaders, who thank him for speaking out—but refuse to do so themselves. As Soares notes, an unprecedented proportion of New York’s leaders today are African American. Accounting for only about a fifth of New York City’s population, and a smaller percentage of state residents, blacks are now especially overrepresented at the top of its public-safety-related agencies. The lieutenant governor, attorney general, parole board chairman, Senate majority leader, and Assembly speaker and majority leader—all are black. Downstate, Mayor Eric Adams is black, as are the deputy commissioner for public safety, heads of the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Department of Probation, the NYPD’s outgoing commissioner and its current second and third in command, the U.S. attorneys for the Southern and Eastern Districts, the district attorneys of Manhattan and the Bronx, the public advocate, and the city council chairwoman. Shouldn’t they feel secure enough to confront the issue?

But for true-believer progressives, who wield tremendous political influence, certain ways of evaluating crime policies are viewed with genuine contempt: pointing to the unintended negative consequences of reforms, stressing the need to use data to evaluate policies, and acknowledging how individual accountability and culture play vital roles in crime prevention.

To make matters worse, these officials have the savvy not to acknowledge publicly the depth of their contempt for data, culture, and life-and-death crime realities. In private discussions, they averred to me that no amount of violent fallout in the black community will persuade them to amend a policy that pursues their goals of funding more social services and eviscerating the criminal-justice system. Tellingly, however, the progressive leaders interviewed for this article were unwilling to publish their guiding beliefs on the record. Therefore, representative, anonymized quotes appear below.

Why, then, is Soares one of the few pragmatic voices from this side of the political spectrum willing to speak out? For most black leaders, publicly discussing crime statistics, community norms, and the need to rein in recent reforms is still politically destructive. Indeed, among the influential elite, as well as the ideologically committed on the left, there remains a great reluctance to admit what everyday citizens know: that policing, prosecution, and incarceration are integral to public safety.

Mayor Eric Adams, who campaigned on a pro-law-enforcement platform, has been a lightning rod for criticism from depolicing advocates. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images)

In surveys, most black New Yorkers indicate that they want more policing—including for quality-of-life offenses. “I was routinely very, very surprised at how . . . I got the most positive receptions in communities of color,” says Thomas Kenniff, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor and Judge Advocate General officer who campaigned as the Republican nominee for Manhattan district attorney in 2021. “Quite a few people came up to me and said, ‘We don’t support lawlessness; we want police in our community locking up the perps.’ ”

Also increasingly vocal is a generation of black reformers, like Soares, who have held senior criminal-justice-agency positions and have grown concerned about the code of silence around these topics. They have found their input ignored or derided by other progressive legislators, advocates, journalists, and law students. Many of the silencers are aware of the realities of crime, but they adhere to an ideological position that crime is a response to an unjust, racist society and that the public-safety solution should thus involve social services—housing, employment, and education—combined with a scaling-down, if not abolition, of the criminal-justice system.

“Jonathan,” a progressive former New York City court program head, perfectly expresses this point of view: “The state has harmed communities, taken their resources.” Rather than discussing forbidden topics, he says, we should ask: “What would make these conditions never exist? What would really build that? Libraries do that. Good schools do that. [Work] for people to do means a lot more . . . [and] health care, social science, public programs. . . . That’s the conversation I want to have around crime victimization.”

For Jonathan, the criminal-justice system exists in a zero-sum competition with social services for resources. “The minute we have those conversations about crime victimization, the answer is more police. No one on the left wants to have those conversations. No one will have those conversations,” he says. “There’s a reason people don’t want to talk about it, because it sucks resources out of the room, and resources must be shared with impoverished communities.”

Is there a successful model of replacing criminal justice with social services? An influential progressive agency head, “Jones,” is adamant: if no jurisdiction in this country has yet achieved public order this way, we just need to try harder and wait longer. Public safety will be achieved when neighborhoods have spent generations trying “preventive services and not law enforcement and seen what happens when black communities are investing in ourselves and policing ourselves.”

Meantime, overwhelming evidence suggests that law enforcement reduces crime. A 2022 study found that each additional police officer abates about 0.1 homicides, and the effect is twice as strong for blacks as for whites. But this is the kind of data-based evaluation that progressives believe obscures deeper truths about the relationship between social or economic disadvantage and crime. Jonathan dismisses quantitative analyses. “Most basic stuff we know,” he explains, through “actual life research.” He argues against “things being data-driven” because he has seen rowdy underprivileged kids calm down after getting a square meal. “We don’t have data around when you’re ‘hangry,’ you’re terrible. We just know, without data. Kids that are hungry won’t behave nicely or sit through class. How do we use that basic knowledge without getting lost in all this evidence? . . . I get annoyed with evidence blah blah blah.”

Jones, too, believes that research isn’t instrumental for policy discussions, as it fails to capture the emotional experiences of individuals who “didn’t make it into the study.” For Jones, this felt experience—the infliction of a racist America—nullifies personal agency and accountability. “It’s very difficult to separate out what a 17-year-old black young man is thinking and his personal accountability when he feels hopeless, which is how this country wants him to feel.” If you expect him to “just go to school, work really hard, get a job at minimum wage, and get himself out of this,” he says, you would have to “ignore the fact that, by design in a lot of ways, that child is not meant to escape that environment.” For progressives like Jones, “it’s hard to teach personal accountability when we know that for black and brown communities and oppressed groups, it isn’t about content of your character, or that your hard work will automatically get results.” In the course of these discussions, I was chastised: “You’re going to spout articles and studies, and I’m like: the real black experiences aren’t like that.”

This prevalent mind-set has left criminal-justice reformers who wanted change but believe that policymaking should draw on evidence feeling sidelined.

The lead-up to 2020—and then the explosive impact of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis—created a sense among black leaders that “this is our moment.” Many had long sought reforms to New York’s bail and parole laws, criminal-discovery rules, and the policing and prosecution of low-level offending. Leroy Frazer, Jr., former first assistant attorney in Manhattan and chief of staff in the Brooklyn DA’s office, says: “Black leaders for the longest time have wanted to be in a position to change things—specifically looking at the legislature up in Albany—but have been powerless to do so because they didn’t have a majority and weren’t able to dictate the policy.” With the post-Floyd political opening, black legislators leaped to execute “what they could do with discovery, Raise the Age, bail laws,” he says—reforms in which “they fervently believed.”

But the bond between progressive priorities and more traditionally black ones—such as, fundamentally, the need to balance reform with public-safety realities—quickly started to fray. Many black leaders have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to straddle both camps. When it came time to draft the reforms, progressive ideas dominated. Data suggesting that new bills, as drafted, might ignore victims of crime, community well-being, or the quality of the criminal-justice system itself got shunted aside. Emotion trumped evidence.

Frazer laments the exclusion of data that could have led to smarter reforms. If left-wing legislators “had done it the right way, they would have solicited input, and put in safeguards, such as allowing judges to retain discretion [over bail decisions].”He recalls being at a discovery-reform implementation hearing at City Hall where prosecutors raised important concerns about the law. It was clear to him, however, that presiding State Senator Jamaal Bailey and the other lawmakers were paying them no mind. “The message was: ‘there is absolutely nothing you can say today that’s going to change this.’ ”

Similarly, Benjamin Tucker, a former NYPD first deputy commissioner, recalls meetings in recent years with “African Americans now in public office” at the city and state levels about criminal-justice reforms in the works. “We didn’t say all the pieces of legislation proposed are terrible and bad,” he says; they “just needed to be tweaked.” Tucker proposed specific language changes to the bills. But “they didn’t want to hear it.”

The sidelining experienced by Frazer and Tucker mirrors the public vilification that Mayor Eric Adams, a longtime advocate for black causes, routinely receives from progressives for supporting evidence-based policies. The hostility has prompted other black leaders with similar views to keep mum.

The contention that evidence-led criminal-justice debates are driven by racist motives makes it hard to modify failing policies. “My most core read of the crime victim conversation,” says an undaunted Jonathan, “is that people feel betrayed by that conversation that uses black people’s pain to justify black people’s subjugation.” To avoid such a “bait and switch,” he contends, leaders should “foreground” any public-safety conversation with disclaimers acknowledging the potential for “racial impact” or “betrayal.” But such foregrounding apparently hasn’t worked for Soares, Frazer, or Tucker—all establishment progressives who’ve spent their careers talking about the need to combat racism and to be sensitive to the black experience of law enforcement.

The current environment marks a seismic shift from an era when black reformers were expected to speak concretely about crime fighting and policy. Consider the vanishing of the term “black-on-black crime” from progressive discourse. Benjamin Ward, who, in the mid-1980s, became the NYPD’s first black police commissioner, called it “our dirty little secret.” Social thinker Michael Javen Fortner, an expert on black politics in New York, notes that black leaders even held a national convention addressing black-on-black crime. “They did come to a place where they used that language in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Jesse Jackson was using it in the late 1960s.”

The concept of black-on-black crime recognized criminogenic factors other than systemic racism and sought solutions beyond more social services. Fortner directed me to a 1979 Ebony special issue titled “Black on Black Crime.” Seriously probing the “Causes, Consequences, and Cures” for the problem, the issue considered historical racism as a factor but also promoted higher individual and community standards for self-control and excellence. It even featured an editorial titled “Stop Coddling the Hoodlums.”

The narrowing of the public conversation since then represents a significant loss. Fortner explains: “The framing [of black-on-black crime] makes sense if you have a communitarian approach to the black community. If you think, as members of this community, we have a certain set of obligations, then harming another member of the community is an affront to that moral logic.” He adds: “Am I my brother’s keeper? You certainly are. My community survives because it believes we are my brother’s keeper—otherwise it undermines that cohesiveness.”

The progressive alternative is to demand government contracts aiming at “community” solutions, such as “violence interrupters” or “credible messengers”—outreach workers who use their past criminal behavior and time spent behind bars as reputational leverage to try to disrupt violence. The available data suggest that these programs don’t reliably improve public safety. Further, a community’s social control springs largely from its ability to enforce shared values around personal responsibility. Contractors paid as part of a “social-services” solution are not likely to instill such values.

Shawn Hill, a Fordham University technology instructor who cofounded the Greater Harlem Coalition, a local civic group, expresses a related worry. “To abdicate any personal decision-making is to emasculate these young men we’re talking about,” says Hill (who isn’t black). “Saying they’re nothing but products of racist upbringing and society denies them agency . . . and ultimately fails to acknowledge those 99.99 percent of other young men in exactly those horrible situations . . . who [made] right decisions.”

Fortner fears that progressives have lost the necessary conceptual language to discuss culture. They aren’t able, he says, “to have nuanced conversations about policy because of its connection to broader philosophical and social questions.” Things were different 20 years ago, he says, when even liberal college students had earnest debates about culture. “I think younger people today can’t engage those issues seriously,” he says, being bound to a reductive set of claims about racism and global injustice. When it comes to the role that culture might play in policy outcomes, “they can’t entertain it intellectually. And morally.”

Of course, culture affects crime in ways that state-funded services cannot. Hill laments, “I’m constantly baffled as to what we can do” about gang warfare between two housing projects abutting his street—and culture is inescapably part of the problem. “If you have older men essentially teaching boys that this is the way to be a man in this neighborhood—violence and hatred for another group, another housing project—it’s a learned, taught behavior. They are literally mentored into a life of ‘you dissed me, you said my girl’s fat, guess what, I’m coming to get you.’ It’s so trivial.”

This very triviality contradicts Jones’s scenarios of underprivileged youth driven to crime by desperate need. Hill says of warring neighbors: “A generation or two ago it was about drugs; [these two housing projects] were both major [drug] enterprises. These days they’re not major drug hubs. They don’t have half of Washington Heights coming here to buy. All it is now is dissing each other on social media. It’s all perceived insults to their manhood, neighborhood, family. Just the most stupid and asinine stuff. Killing each other over insults.”

Tucker witnessed the destructive influence of gang culture when he was a street cop in Canarsie, Brooklyn, in the 1970s. The War Lords demanded that one of their members return drugs stolen from a drug dealer, but the member refused. So that night, the gang set fire to his building, killing seven people. A 12-year-old gang member explained: “He should have done what we told him to do.” How can leaders wedded to the language of systemic disadvantage plausibly explain this kind of violence?

Meantime, the violence mounts. Always elevated compared with other racial groups, the black homicide-victimization rate shifted upward around 2015, according to research from Robert VerBruggen and Christos Makridis. Then it jumped a dramatic 40 percent between 2018–19 and 2020–21, while the white homicide rate grew by 15 percent. Since the black homicide rate already far outstripped the white one, the increase for blacks in real numbers was nearly 25 times that for whites.

Columbia University professor Morgan C. Williams, Jr. fumes about leaders’ silence over blacks getting murdered at staggering rates, while condemning only the far fewer deaths at the hands of police. “The fact that you don’t give any weight whatsoever to the former statistic just tells me about your intentions about dealing with the preciousness of life in general.” Soares concurs: “The number one cause of harm for African American males age 14 to 24 is homicide and suicide. . . . And what are we doing? We go to Albany and basically decriminalize the possession of weapons for 16- and 17-year-olds, called Raise the Age. We are engaging in virtue [signaling] and not engaging in doing what our communities need in order to thrive.”

“I struggle,” confesses Fortner, “with how a lot of reformers ignore all the deaths that have occurred over the last couple of years. As if ‘nothing to see here.’ Hundreds of black and brown people being slaughtered. They are very effective at policing language so that people won’t even frame it that way, and they are afraid to be called reactionary.”

Residents in minority neighborhoods are increasingly fed up with high crime rates. (Ethel Wolvovitz/Alamy Stock Photo)

Why is it so hard for those on the left publicly to decry the tragic murder rate for black victims?

The most obvious reason is that other blacks are committing the violence, so pointing it out is viewed as somehow stigmatizing the black community. Another, related reason is that it would focus debate on more immediate solutions, such as a robust law enforcement, court, and incarceration regime, clouding progressives’ dream of a social-services infrastructure that could replace the criminal-justice system.

I asked Jones whether, if it were clear that Raise the Age (RTA) had played a role in rising gang violence, we should revise the law. Perhaps lawmakers could maintain the law’s provisions that deliver social services to teens but toughen the consequences for violence. In New York City, I note, 25 more black youths were murdered in 2021 than in 2017, when RTA was enacted. Jones holds firm: “25 young black people killed is horrible, of course,” he concedes, but he sees the fact that RTA has been providing services as the higher-priority metric.

Viewed through Jones’s progressive lens, analyzing how RTA affects teens’ behavioral choices is pointless because personal agency is illusory and data obscure “the basic stuff”—namely, that people will behave themselves after the state gives them things. “The law doesn’t need to be tweaked” and made tougher, he asserts. “Maybe even the other way.” He then expresses the sentiment so dismaying to Soares: “If the focal point is 25 more killed than last year, I’m not discounting deaths, but there are families receiving services.”

Where is this public conversation headed? Recent events suggest that, even among left-wing leaders, rising crime may be prompting some reconsideration. Heads of the Oakland NAACP last August urged officials in an open letter: “There is nothing compassionate or progressive about allowing criminal behavior to fester and rob Oakland residents of their basic rights to public safety. It is not racist or unkind to want to be safe from crime.”

Jones dismisses this as unrepresentative. “I’m sure that the NAACP statement is not undisputed across the black community.” Fortner, however, likens it to “a [1960s] statement from the local Harlem NAACP in saying the same thing: criminal terror must end; we need much more policing, sentences. They know about the importance of police brutality—but at such a crisis moment, we need to do something about [crime].” That was the late 1960s, he emphasizes, “long before something actually happened. People have to build a movement around public safety.”

This is largely a job for voters. The Republican Party has lost significant political power in New York over the last decade or so, allowing Democrats to drift further to the left. Both parties had earlier agreed on the need for law and order; but with no competitive resistance at the polls in deep-blue states, Democrats face no pressure to talk about crime fighting in those terms. That may be changing. New York’s unexpectedly close 2022 gubernatorial race between tough-on-crime Republican Lee Zeldin and incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul suggests that political shifts are under way. Indeed, without issues like abortion and January 6 motivating the Democratic base, Zeldin might have won.

Beyond ballot-box politics, we have a moral obligation to encourage black leaders to talk once again about crime victims, accountability, and culture. Morgan Williams sees a generation of students, who, “for the most part, are just learning much of the bad racial and criminal-justice discourse that exists on Twitter or elsewhere, as opposed to being able to dive deeply into some of the research.” He wants them to look deeper. “I want them to be able to go out into the world, read evidence, and call BS when they see it. That’s something that we all have a role in taking on.”

Top Photo: “We are engaging in virtue [signaling] and not engaging in doing what our communities need in order to thrive,” says Albany County district attorney David Soares. (Tim Roske/AP Photo)


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