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Crimes Against Reason

The new criminal justice reform movement is destroying our ability to debate

Hannah Elka Meyers
June 26, 2023

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Last month, New York City Mayor and onetime progressive reformer Eric Adams was heckled by the graduating class of the City University of New York Law School. When he noted his own history as a protester within the police department, he was heckled more. “Adams had the audacity to compare his tenure in NYPD to the discipline, principles, and commitment of our class,” one student was quoted saying. “Within our short time at CUNY Law, we’ve served and protected the citizens of New York City more than his 20-plus years as a cop.”

This kind of virtue-preening is now de rigueur among the progressives behind the national criminal justice reform agenda. While claiming moral high ground by demonizing both the system itself and a previous generation of reformers like Adams, the results of the movement’s efforts so far are not encouraging. Snowballing reform policies and shrinking police departments and prosecutors’ offices have contributed to national homicide rates 34% higher last year than in 2019, auto theft rates up 59%, and organized retail crime so rampant that Walgreens closed 10 San Francisco stores in recent years.

The larger trend, however, is a war against individual reasoning that is both enacting harmful policies in the name of “criminal justice reform” while also crippling the ability of young people to think critically. Law students like the ones in New York are being indoctrinated into an ideology that actively degrades their capacity to understand and interpret the law. How did this happen? It stems from the movement’s hostility toward not only fact-based dialogue but the very idea that individuals should use their critical faculties and reason to determine fairness. Unlike more rational calls for reform, the movement behind ideas like defunding the police and decriminalizing the resistance of arrest thrives by preventing individuals from challenging its assumptions. It also limits the role of individual judgment by all players within the criminal justice system: judges, cops, and even criminal defendants and victims.

The current reform movement also blocks actors from even having facts to evaluate. For example, while it was reformers who initially pushed the NYPD to maintain a gang database for the sake of transparency, the newer, more extreme criminal justice activists now claim that keeping such data itself criminalizes Black and brown youth. That’s the argument made by the Legal Aid Society, despite the results from a half-decade-long probe by the NYC Department of Investigations concluding in April that there was no “evidence of harm” to suspects listed in the database.

Similarly, the progressive group the Bronx Defenders just won a five-year suit after a judge ruled in March that the NYPD can no longer access sealed arrest records. There are civil liberties concerns that need to be considered with access to sealed records, but the public safety ramifications are also quite real. As former NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea noted, a sealed case “does not always equate to a determination of innocence.” An accused child rapist, for instance, could have a dozen previous arrests for child molestation in which parents chose each time to forgo the case—say in the interest of protecting their child from a prolonged trial—rather than make their child testify. Now police will not be able to know these sealed records even exist.

Law students like the ones in New York are being indoctrinated into an ideology that actively degrades their capacity to understand and interpret the law.

A quintessential example of the current movement’s antipathy to fact-based reasoning is that they built a black hole for records right into New York state’s 2017 Raise the Age legislation. Under this law, essentially all misdemeanor cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds go to Family Court, as do 83% of felonies. But none of these Family Court case records are maintained. That means that victims are unable to learn case outcomes, as are prosecutors. Even Family Court judges themselves are not allowed to know if the defendant in front of them has seven previous gun arrests the same year.

While ostensibly protecting persecuted individuals from the state, in practice the movement insulates government policymaking from aggressive probing. Official policy discussions now happen within silos, where the people advocating for new laws and regulations do not have to satisfy practical or moral challenges posed by other stakeholders. When Raise the Age was enacted, one prosecutor told me that prosecutors at implementation hearings asked: “But what about the impact on crime victims?” The response: “We’re not talking about victims right now.”

Similarly, when discovery reform passed in the New York State Assembly in 2019, it monumentally increased prosecutors’ compliance burden, requiring them to rapidly collect and share even patently irrelevant and nonsubstantive material for each case–or risk the case’s automatic dismissal. Correctly, officials forecasted higher case dismissal rates and ballooning costs, but were pooh-poohed as “fearmongerers” by progressive legislators in charge. Presiding NYS Sen. Jamaal Bailey, chairman of the Committee on Codes, flatly sidestepped concerns that the legislation had been irresponsibly pushed through with unresolved issues: “I think about, what’s irresponsible? Is it responsible to allow people not to have access to information that relates to their freedom, to their liberty?” But after the new policy took effect, New York City’s dismissal rate jumped from 44% of cases to 69% over the next two years, while also requiring millions of additional dollars in funding. These cases were dropped, not out of considerations of justice, but because overwhelmed assistant district attorneys simply ran out of time. When the same New York senators held a hearing in February on criminal justice data, they blocked Albany’s district attorney from testifying due to his critical interpretation of reform policies’ impact on public safety for Black New Yorkers.

Perhaps the most determinedly superficial policy discussion in New York has been about the impact of 2019 bail reform legislation. The law prohibits judges from setting bail on over 350 categories of offenses, primarily nonviolent felonies, which originally included manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Judges were also forbidden from considering a defendant’s criminal record or likeliness of reoffending in deciding whether to detain him pretrial—only his likelihood of returning to court. When the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, over 2,000 inmates detained for offenses made bail-ineligible were released from New York City jails. In just the following two-and-a-half months before the COVID pandemic hit, such offenses skyrocketed: Car theft rose 68%; robbery 34%, and burglary 27%.

The population of offenders who can no longer be held in jail pretrial have continued to contribute to ballooning crime. As of mid-June 2023, NYC car theft is up 268% year to date over 2019; robbery is up 37% and burglary up 43%. The actual number of violent felony arrests committed pretrial has also more than doubled in the first three years following bail reform—even as the overall number of arrests fell.

And yet, as showcased in the same 2019 NYS Senate hearing presided over by Sen. Jamaal Bailey, progressive legislators insisted that crime had not increased since the new law began forcing judges to release more defendants, even those deemed dangerous. Yet nowhere in the hearing were proponents forced to publicly reckon with key qualifiers. Doesn’t it matter that the cited “reoffending rate” only counts whether or not a defendant commits another crime, but not how many times? That only prosecuted arrests are counted, and prosecution rates have dropped? And since the number of individuals released pretrial has gone up significantly, even if the same percentage of them reoffends, won’t the actual number of crimes be that much higher? But state legislators are simply given a pass from confronting these logical next questions.

Beyond policymaking, the movement also quashes individual judgment within the practice of law enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration. As noted, New York’s 2019 bail reform laws curtailed individual judges’ discretion in detaining offenders they found dangerous to society. Discovery reform limited individual criminal defendants’ discretion in plea bargaining. The progressive New York City Council’s 2020 “diaphragm law” inhibits cops’ discretion in restraining dangerous suspects. While police chokeholds have long been a felony under state law, the new ban covers a slew of other physical restraints, including applying any pressure to someone’s neck or kneeling on a person’s back—even by accident during a tussle with a resisting suspect. While guilt in last month’s subway killing of Jordan Neely is still being adjudicated, leading progressives like U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York City Councilwoman Tiffany Caban will not even entertain the idea that restraining Neely saved commuters from grievous harm, or that defense, not murder, may have been the motive.

One of the great allures of this narrative is that it feels more virtuous and ideologically safe to rage against the system than against individual criminals, so sympathies over the last few years have swung from the victims of crime to the offenders. Root cause theories that blame criminality on poverty, lack of education, and other disadvantages, have removed responsibility from individuals. Yet these claims ignore evidence showing that, if anything, crime is a key contributor to poverty. And by sidelining the individual in its push for complete group equity, the movement runs afoul of basic fairness. Criminal culpability and criminal victimization should be judged in court at the individual level: To judge anyone by identity group is unfair. Without holding bad actors responsible, bullies run our spaces, determine whose opinion can be heard, and how safe we feel on the subway.

And as CUNY Law School’s bullying graduates made clear, Adams now only represents the system, which permits students to virtuously attack him with no obligation to consider what he says as an individual or to consider their own roles and obligations within that same system. “We’re watching a clear lack of desire to even participate in healthy dialogue,” Adams told the students.

But students, like so many grown-ups around them, are terrified of what conclusions they might reach if allowed free thought. What if some people really should be in jail? What if shoplifting should have consequences? And what if disparities between racial groups are not always and necessarily proof of racism, fixable by dismantling the system?

Like many of the assumptions powering the reform tidal wave, the notion that systemic racism is responsible for disparities in arrest and incarceration rates simply does not stand up to scrutiny. It is a narrative that relies on bypassing substantiation, and invites other illogical arguments like when mass anti-police demonstrations in 2020 were sanctioned by COVID epidemiologists while gathering for any other purpose was considered lethal.

Activists may succeed in shutting out debate and relevant data, but eventually attacking the system will unfairly harm individuals at the other end. New Yorkers will suffer fare hikes this summer while roughly $690 million was lost in fare evasion last year. Shoppers will pay more for basics at Target, since organized retail theft is fueling their roughly $1 billion in merchandise “shrink” this year—almost two-thirds more than last year. And residents in poor neighborhoods disproportionately shoulder the burdens of surging homicides and car thefts in our cities.

The thought-stifling impact on display among CUNY Law students is widespread throughout New York’s schools, where the criminal justice reform narrative is exacerbating a wider trend in lower grades of not teaching students to reason—of teaching students to share feelings instead of facts. When I was invited to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s “Unity Summit” last month, New York state’s 9-year-old poet laureate performed his work. He is adorable, but why are we pretending that he is our state’s best poet? He recited, with fist in the air: “Who Am I? / Power to speak out without a doubt / George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and Sean Bell / Do those names ring a bell?”

Are we teaching kids that criminal justice outrage will get you on the podium but not that rhyming Bell with bell is weak writing?

The attack on reason also results in targeting Jews as the representatives of a wicked system it seeks to dismantle. At the same CUNY Law ceremony last month where Mayor Adams was heckled, the commencement speaker was Fatima Mohammed, who had previously called for “Zionist professors” to be banned from teaching at the school. Of course, individual professors committed no crime other than being Jews or supporters of the Jewish state. Yet Mohammed accuses them of affiliation with the same global system of evil that she assailed in her speech, charging Israel with indiscriminately gunning down worshipers, murdering young and elderly, and encouraging lynch mobs. Horrifically, the dean applauded.

In his own address to the students, Mayor Adams offered them a challenge: “To those who believe that their beliefs are the only beliefs in a diversified city like New York, my message to you, instead of being a detached spectator in the full contact sport called life, get on the field and participate about improving the lives of the people of this city.”

Adams’s bold call for each individual student to take on the messy challenges of creating a safe, diverse society should be echoed by all of us. The system isn’t the problem. We each need to be the solution.

Hannah Elka Meyers is a fellow and director of policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute. She spent a decade managing analytical teams at a private investigations firm and at NYPD’s Intelligence Bureau.