Opinion

Soaring crime but the fewest people in prison since 1946: Progressives’ upside-down view of NYC crime

It’s an article of faith among New York City’s progressive leadership that punishment does not deter crime and that putting criminals in jail is at least as evil as whatever they did to get there.

From this perspective, sending someone to jail is the worst thing that society can do: It not only destroys the life of the perpetrator but also creates a false sense of accomplishment, while ignoring the socioeconomic “root causes” of crime.

New York City has radically decriminalized “quality of life” offenses, from littering to public urination to fare evasion, largely on the principle that arresting people is never the answer. In the summer of 2020, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice boasted that “the number of New Yorkers held in New York City jails has plummeted, shrinking by 27 percent in 10 weeks, a steeper population decline than in all of last year,” bringing the city’s incarcerated population down to the lowest level since 1946.

This would be salutary if it reflected a falling crime rate, but the release en masse of prisoners, driven by concern about COVID-19, came at a moment when murders and shootings were rising more quickly than ever recorded before. When incarceration is conceptually decoupled from crime, politicians are free to boast about emptying jails. 

Close up of the NYPD logo on a police car.
Crime has been on the rise in NYC despite the decrease in those incarcerated.
Getty Images

The latest twist on the premise that jail is worse than crime is the notion that calling the police is itself a form of violence. Since, on this view, the police routinely commit brutality against black people, and interactions with police frequently result in the death of black men, it is unconscionable to call the police in most situations, especially when it may involve entwining a black life with law enforcement.  

In fact, it may be tantamount to ordering a black person’s execution. Alvin Bragg, the likely new Manhattan district attorney — who opposes jail time for people convicted of “violent felonies” (his quotation marks) — cautions that calling the police on black people risks “the police shooting of another black man.” 

To minimize police intervention, advocates have called for treating violent crime involving guns as a public-health issue, akin to the campaign against smoking that reduced cigarette usage and the incidence of lung cancer. Mary Bassett, former city health commissioner, demanded “community-based interventions” to deal with shootings, employing “the use of ‘credible messengers’ and community-mobilization techniques that aim to mediate conflicts between individuals and groups and prevent retaliatory violence before it occurs.” 

Someone grabbing the bars In prison.
Gun violence has increased but gun arrests have decreased in 2021.
Getty Images/EyeEm

Such “violence interruption” programs receive significant funding and get reintroduced every year as an innovative solution to violent crime. Claims that these efforts work are inevitably based on studies of tiny catchment areas that provide limited evidence for replicability of the model. Mayor Bill de Blasio has been promising a new rollout of more “Cure Violence” practitioners since July 2020, as shootings and murders continue to climb. 

When New Yorkers of Asian descent were being attacked and beaten routinely on the streets, de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, advised witnesses to violent hate crimes to “just try interrupting it” by “distracting” the perpetrator — for instance, by asking the victim of an ongoing beating to tell you the current time. “This is risky,” she concluded, after encouraging bystanders to intervene “physically.” At no time does the mayor’s wife advise people to call the police. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a similar plea in regard to anti-Semitic violence associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asking people on Twitter to “take NYC’s free, 1hr bystander intervention course.” According to the Web site, “the trainings explore the meaning of safety, of being an effective ally, and how identity plays a role in the ways we choose to intervene.”

The resistance to calling the police is based on the premise that a racist institution will impose an inequitable intervention when it responds. But even the bystander-intervention training assumes that the “identity” of the intervenor “plays a role” in the act of intervention; a white person, one presumes, must tread lightly when intervening in a violent attack perpetrated by a nonwhite, lest racist modes of defusing tension intrude and replicate the racist structures that we seek to avoid. 

Alvin Bragg, candidate for District Attorney of New York poses for a portrait in New York City, New York, U.S., April 15, 2021.
Alvin Bragg is the democratic nominee for Manhattan district attorney.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Crime is a problem to urban progressives, but apparently not for the reasons that bother everyone else — that crime victimizes people and has huge costs. The problem, from the progressive standpoint, is that the race of many perpetrators is a political inconvenience. 

Seth Barron’s new book is “The Last Days of New York.” Adapted from City Journal.




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