The last time Official New York decided that criminals mattered more than civic tranquility, John Vliet Lindsay was mayor and decades of chaos lay ahead. Then came law-and-order types like Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and Mike Bloomberg; crackdowns ensued, and peace largely returned to the streets.
Now the pendulum is swinging back to dysfunction. And public policy in New York increasingly seems driven by the same kind of “turn’em-loose” ethic that animated Lindsay’s administration decades ago.
In Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo was a motivating force behind the now largely successful effort to exempt 16- and 17-year-olds from felony statutes—the “Raise the Age” movement—with scant regard for the consequences of doing so. Plus, the governor is clamoring to close the Rikers Island jail complex—but without offering a realistic public-safety alternative. While Cuomo is far from alone in endorsing these positions, he brings the prestige of New York’s highest political office to the effort.
At City Hall, Mayor Bill de Blasio has allowed himself to be dragooned into the Close Rikers movement—he initially recognized its practical pitfalls, then moved to capture the spotlight in his characteristically flexible manner. He was also a Raise the Age cheerleader, has demonstrably reduced civility and safety standards in the public schools, flooded the streets with often-aggressive vagrants, signed federal consent decrees that rendered Rikers less safe, and made it far more difficult than it needs to be to protect New York from Islamist terrorism.
And to plop a cherry on all this, eight members of New York’s congressional delegation have joined a who’s who of city political leaders urging parole for Judith Clark, an unrepentant former terrorist now serving time for the murders of two upstate cops and a security guard. (Cuomo started that ball rolling by granting Clark clemency for the murders in January.)
New York’s political leaders also favor sanctuary status for New York—a blatant thumb to the nose for the rule of law and a potential boon to violent illegal aliens statewide. Just last week, a Staten Island judge ruled that the city can indeed destroy all the background documentation for holders of the IDNYC municipal identification card—to make sure that law enforcement can never check up on their immigration status.
While individual motives differ here, one common thread binds the various disciples of dysfunction: by and large, they can insulate themselves from the consequences of the policy changes they’re prescribing. The same can’t be said of the less well-placed, or of New York itself.
For example, former state chief judge Jonathan Lippmann—a boyhood friend and political protégé of the disgraced former speaker of the state assembly Sheldon Silver—chaired the commission that recently urged the shutdown of Rikers Island. Among Lippman’s often-outlandish recommendations was the decriminalization of prostitution as a means of reducing the jail population—a typical call to treat symptoms rather than address antisocial behavior directly. While Lippman may have advanced the idea in good faith, it also came with no apparent awareness of what it might mean for tourism hubs like Times Square, or for marginal outer-borough neighborhoods already struggling with urban pathologies.
This is no small matter. For one thing, tourism is the second-most fruitful segment of the municipal economy; one endangers that industry at the city’s peril. For another, law enforcement has turned a blind eye to street-level prostitution before—in the days when New York was called “Fun City,” even though it was anything but: it was an era obsessed with individual rights, never individual responsibilities, and the imbalance put law-abiding New Yorkers at a too-often-deadly disadvantage.
The move toward greater empathy for the criminal class makes a kind of perverse sense. Individual victims tend to be out of sight, out of mind, and debilitated neighborhoods have no standing in court. But perpetrators are utterly visible, standing front and center before a judge, often with sad stories, and they command attention. It’s understandably human to want to rehabilitate—and so it’s natural that the maladaptive wheel gets the grease, consequences be damned.
But consequences matter. The de Blasio administration’s decision to diminish sanctions on disruptive behavior in the city’s public schools has, for example, led to unsafe classrooms and degraded learning environments. The disruptors catch a break, while the schools become that much less effective.
The plague of violence that has descended on Rikers Island is in no small way the result of a federal court consent decree agreed to by the mayor that severely limits the ability of jail guards to deal with violent prisoners. The gang-banging thugs who dominate Rikers benefit, but not so much the guards themselves— nor other inmates who want only to mind their own business and get an unhappy experience over with as quickly as possible.
Cuomo’s successful efforts to repeal the so-called Rockefeller anti-drug-dealing laws, and his insistence that drug-dealing is essentially a nonviolent crime, certainly have made life easier for drug dealers. But to what extent have reduced enforcement and penalties for selling drugs contributed to the devastating epidemic of opioid-related deaths? This is a complicated topic, but it stands to reason that making illegal drug-dealing less risky will only encourage it.
And so it goes. There is scarcely a threat to the public order these days that doesn’t command a measure of protection from New York’s political establishment. It speaks to the state’s fundamentally warped ethical sensibilities that its leaders—often under ethical clouds themselves—are more likely to support the city’s disruptors than the New Yorkers trying to lead productive, peaceful lives.
Whose values matter more? How sad that the question need even be asked.
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