There's a growing consensus in America that too many people are ensnared in the sprawling prison-industrial complex. The powers that be in Washington, DC, are increasingly amenable to criminal justice reform, which could dramatically reduce additions to the US prison population in the years ahead. And President Barack Obama seems to be dedicating the remainder of his time in the Oval Office in large part to curbing the worst parts of mass incarceration. (Obama recently became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, a trip that was filmed by VICE for an upcoming special, and followed that by announcing clemency for 46 nonviolent drug offenders.)
In New York City, home to a massive and notoriously dysfunctional jail system, reformers have focused in large part on getting people out before they go in. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio—who ran on a progressive criminal justice platform—announced Justice Reboot, a program aimed at reducing the population of the hellish Rikers Island jail complex by 25 percent over ten years. The plan is to clear court backlogs to prevent young and vulnerable people—like Kalief Browder, who languished on Rikers for three years without trial—from getting lost in the system. And in late June, New York City created a $1.4 million bail fund to help many of those facing bails under $2,000.
But now New York Police Department Commissioner William J. Bratton is apparently worried that the city is in danger of going a little too far when it comes to keeping people out of jail.
"There are people in our society, I'm sorry, they're criminals," Bratton said in a radio interview Wednesday. "They're bad people. You don't want to put them in diversion programs; you don't want to keep them out of jail. We need to work very hard to put them in jail and keep them there for a long time, because they're a danger to the rest of us, and that's the reality."
On the John Gambling Show, Bratton came out against programs he argues are "well-intended" but, ultimately, put lots of very bad men back onto the streets of New York. (It's unclear exactly which programs he was criticizing, but Bratton took pains to decry people who are "tipping too much on the side of letting them out.")
Reached for comment, a mayoral spokeswoman told VICE, "Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton agree: If people break the law, there should be serious consequences and they should receive the appropriate penalties."
But pretty much everyone agrees that killers, murderers, and rapists should be locked up. The problem is that Bratton isn't really talking about them, so much as he's touching a nerve in the law and order community—not only in the Big Apple, but nationwide. Criminal justice reform that reduces the incarcerated population—even if it sounds awfully nice—could senselessly put communities at harm, according to some old-school cops and prosecutors.
"We can't lose sight of the fact that we have a hardcore criminal population in this city of several thousand people who have no values, no respect for human life," Bratton said in the radio interview.
The commissioner's dire warning came during what's been a bloody week for New York City. Early Sunday morning, at a party in East New York, Brooklyn, a group of men opened fire and injured nine people. The next day, in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, two men shot five people in a drive-by, critically injuring a pregnant woman and taking the life of her unborn child.
Yet as grizzly as that sounds, gun violence is par for the course in New York City. When it comes to the statistics, this year hasn't been much different from 2014, which was generally on par with the years before that. All of which is to say: NYC is still the safest large city in America, and there's no indication that has changed.
"This idea that somehow too many people are getting out of jail makes zero sense considering violent crime has been on the decline here for years," Brian Sonenstein, a prison reform advocate and columnist for Shadowproof.com, a new progressive website, told VICE.
A sudden spree of shootings in June led to an early launch this year of "Operation All Out," a summer program that began in 2014 where NYPD officers usually on desk duty are assigned to crime-ridden areas. Shootings promptly dropped, and as the New York Times reported, word came from on high that only a small network of criminals—most of them gang-affiliated—are behind the city's lingering violent crime problem.
All of which begs the question: Why is Bratton talking about jail rather than street gangs?
"The insinuation that our modest reduction in incarceration levels has made us less safe is plainly untrue," Glenn Martin, the founder of JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform organization that seeks to cut the prison population in half by 2030, told VICE via email. "In point of fact, the data reveals that the trend is actually in the opposite direction. Are there people out there capable of committing acts of unimaginable cruelty? Of course, but that's a small fraction of the percentage of people we lock up."
In the Red Hook shooting, a 19-year-old suspect, Marquise Frederick, had three prior arrests—two of them for violent crimes—before he gave himself up to cops on Wednesday. Bratton cited this shooting in his diatribe against the prospect of unleashing hordes of psychos into the street, but cops told the Daily News that he was a member of a gang called the Oww Oww Crew based in Brooklyn's Gowanus houses, and that the shooting was in retaliation for another one nearby.
It's important to remember that the programs Bratton seems to be pissed about are aimed at nonviolent offenders—not people like Frederick.
"Didn't Bratton say last week that we weren't going back to the bad old days?" Joseph Giacalone, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD Detective Sergeant, asked me. "Didn't he also say on Tuesday that murder was up all across the country? I think he feels that his legacy is in jeopardy, if not tarnished already."
Giacalone argues that Bratton has been "looking for excuses" to help explain away the recent spate of shootings that has provided a steady stream of front-page fodder for the New York Post and other city tabloids. The idea that sentencing guidelines could be behind the spike is another one to add to the list, Giacalone said, when the real problem is the lack of proactive policing practices like stop-and-frisk—a procedure that came under intense scrutiny after a federal judge found its use to be unconstitutional in 2013. This more aggressive approach preferred by Giacalone would also include targeting gang violence and making more gun arrests.
"Proactive policing works, but it also creates police problems," he said. "Think Eric Garner. No cop wants to be the next test or court case or YouTube video of the week. Abandoning stop, question, and frisk is playing a role in the violence also. Many people, including Bratton, said it had no effect; the data doesn't show it. So then what does the data show is the cause?"
New York's jail practices are artifacts of an age when sentences were harsh because life in New York City was harsh. Eugene O'Donnell, another law enforcement expert at John Jay and a former Brooklyn cop and prosecutor himself, pointed to what he called "iconic crime events" in a time when tabloids like the Post ruled the news.
Now, O'Donnell explained, we're deconstructing this ingrained monster of a system run by quality-of-life crimes and massive sentences for drugs. So it's not surprising that Bratton would argue we're putting criminals back on the street—it's the same message that created those programs in the first place. What we're seeing these days, O'Donnell said, is the "pendulum swing back."
"If you release 500 people from jail at once, that's bad public policy. It's not risk-free to let people out of jail," O'Donnell told VICE. "But not even the most left-wing prosecutor would argue that the goal is to not protect against the hardcore criminals. The challenge has always been particularizing that justice—finding that balance between doing too much, or arresting an entire village to find one person, and too little."
Of course, many police reform advocates argue that cops in the city are doing too much, just not on the right front. A recent report released by the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) examined the number of punitive interactions between police officers and New Yorkers, which totaled nearly two million last year. And most of these interactions, PROP director Bob Gangi said, resulted in hundreds of thousands of "frivolous infractions"—the cornerstone of Bratton's "broken windows" policing theory.
"The people behind the shootings Bratton cited are dangerous and predatory, in all likelihood," Gangi told VICE. "But most of the people his police are arresting aren't dangerous. So, if he is serious about crime problems, Bratton should instead be focused on better and more focused policing. A solid number of the officers in his force are not fighting crime, and his policies are not only racist, but counter-productive."
Given what's happening on the national stage, you can add "outdated" to that list.
"At a time when even conservative Republicans in Washington agree that over-incarceration is a serious problem throughout our country, Commissioner Bratton, of course, argues that we under-incarcerate," Priscilla Gonzalez, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), said in a statement. "It's yet another example of him utilizing an incident that unites New Yorkers—in this case, one we all recognize as both senseless and tragic—to advocate for broad regressive criminal justice policy that divides and harms our communities while failing to make us safer."
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