The savage murder of four homeless men in Chinatown this weekend shocked New Yorkers and prompted anguished appeals for compassion. Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he was “horrified by this senseless act of violence against the most vulnerable members of our community.” Council member Stephen Levin, who has chaired the council’s General Welfare committee for the past decade, noted, “our neighbors who are living on the street or in shelters are so vulnerable & need this city’s compassion.” Local council member Margaret Chin demanded that the city “do more than the bare minimum to help the tens of thousands of New Yorkers in our homeless shelters and on our streets. . . . maximizing every resource to create more affordable housing now.” Council member Carlina Rivera of the Lower East Side and the Bowery said that the murders show “that we’ve failed as a city at building deeply affordable housing.”
None of the officials mentioned the most salient point about the confessed killer, Randy Santos, himself homeless: he is a violent predator and drug addict with a long history of arrests for attacking people. Last November, to cite one of four incidents in the last year, Santos attacked a store clerk on 35th Street—a notorious drug corridor—and bit him on the chest. De Blasio and his junior partners in the city council distort the problem by speaking in general terms about “compassion” and the need for more resources and housing. Santos’s rampage was not caused by a housing shortage or lack of concern for the needy but by the city’s failure to keep him off the streets. As a violent offender known to be mentally unstable, Santos should have been in jail or at least under psychiatric observation.
Progressive policies regarding mental illness, policing, and criminal justice created the conditions where a known violent offender and drug addict is permitted to roam free. The mayor’s vaunted ThriveNYC program—designed and run by his wife, with no professional experience in the field—has invested hundreds of millions of dollars on mental health outreach to depressed or anxious but otherwise functional New Yorkers, and given short shrift to the critical problem of untreated serious mental illness. The city has been increasingly reluctant to seek court supervision of dangerous mentally ill individuals under Kendra’s Law, which has proved highly effective at compelling compliance with psychiatric treatment. The last 12 months have seen a 10 percent decline in people under Kendra’s Law supervision in New York City; the number of new petitions filed to impose supervision runs well below historical averages.
The mayor’s rush to close Rikers Island and build new borough-based facilities depends on reducing the number of people jailed in New York City. Already historically low, the local jail population is comprised of hardcore, mostly repeat offenders. As part of its push to get numbers down, the city has effectively decriminalized a host of offenses, including public urination, congregating in parks after hours, and marijuana possession. Misdemeanor arrests—following a national trend—have declined radically over five years, coinciding with a marked degradation of public spaces like subways and sidewalks, which the homeless have laid claim to in a manner not seen in New York for decades.
At the same time, prosecutors—especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn—have allied themselves with the criminal-defense bar to a startling degree, declaring their refusal to prosecute “minor” offenses, including turnstile-jumping. In a sign of where criminal justice is headed in New York, the city has announced the expansion of Project Reset, a restorative-justice program that serves people arrested for “specific low-level, non-violent crimes, including shoplifting, trespassing, and criminal mischief.” Instead of going to court, these arrestees are diverted into two-to-four hour “programming sessions” that may include “arts-oriented programming and/ or individual counseling sessions.” In the Bronx, Project Reset programming “consists of a restorative circle with community volunteers where participants discuss their arrest and any underlying issues that led to their contact with the justice system.”
It is worth noting that, in addition to four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, Randy Santos has been charged with—ironically—unlawful possession of marijuana. An enthusiastic pot smoker, Santos’s displays a meme on his Facebook page that reads, Que fumes marihuana no te hace mala persona. (Smoking marijuana doesn’t make you a bad person.) Despite its reputation as a drug that keeps people calm and mellow, marijuana use has been linked to the development and amplification of mental illness in young people, and violent, mentally ill criminals invariably report regular use. Deprioritizing of marijuana enforcement has likely increased the chances that more young people will be exposed to the drug and its dangers.
Details regarding Santos’s prior arrests and the disposition of those cases remain scant. We don’t know, for instance, whether the Manhattan district attorney sought to keep him in jail after he attacked and bit a store clerk, or what the Queens courts had in mind when they released him in March after he was arrested for groping a woman. What is clear is that progressive social policies gave Santos the freedom to feed his addictions and nurture his insanity—until he murdered four innocent people.