These Policies Were Supposed to Help Black People. They’re Backfiring.
New York City has experienced an alarming rise in violence over the past two years. From 2019 to 2021, murders went up 52 percent, shootings went up 104 percent, burglary went up 16 percent and car theft went up 91 percent, according to statistics from the New York Police Department.
While all New Yorkers are affected by rising crime, the brunt of the increase is borne by Black New Yorkers. In 2020, Black New Yorkers, who comprise about 24 percent of the city’s population, were the victims in 65 percent of murders and 74 percent of shootings. They were also the largest racial demographic among victims of felony assault and rape.
It is hard not to notice that these tragic trends have emerged alongside the introduction of policies that were supposed to help Black New Yorkers — specifically, by reducingthe impact of the criminal justice system on their lives. Black New Yorkers are disproportionately represented among those who are arrested, convicted and incarcerated in the city. Over the past few years, policymakers have sought to rectify this imbalance, designing policies aimed at achieving numerical parity among racial groups when it comes to relative rates of arrest, conviction and incarceration.
But this strategy is harming Black New Yorkers. By aiming for racial “equity” in criminal justice, rather than focusing solely on deterring and responding to crime, policymakers seem to have neglected the foundational purpose of law and order. What has followed — a sharp rise in victims of crime, who remain disproportionately Black, and a slight increase in the percentage of Rikers Island inmates who are Black — is a racial imbalance of a more troubling kind.
Consider incarceration policy. In 2017, as mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio endorsed the release of thousands of prisoners at Rikers Island. Largely through the expansion of his 2016 “supervised release” program, the average daily jail population in New York City fell to 7,939 in 2019 from 9,500 in 2017 — before falling to 5,841 in 2020. (The number plummeted to less than 4,000 amid Covid-related releases in 2020 but went back up when pandemic policies abated.) A key rationale for the policy was racial equity: Advocacy groups, noting that the percentage of Black New Yorkers at Rikers Island was more than double their percentage of the city’s population, argued that releasing prisoners was an important step in reducing this numerical disparity.
The issue of parole was similar. In September, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law that weakened parole standards: Almost 200 inmates held on Rikers Island, mainly for parole violations, were released and many future violators avoided incarceration altogether. Here, too, advocacy groups had explicitly cited the overrepresentation of Black inmates as a reason to pass the law.
Righting racial imbalance was also a popular justification for New York State’s 2019 bail reform laws. The Black Public Defender Association, for example, argued that the old bail system was “used to unfairly keep Black and Brown people locked in cages.” According to the new bail system, judges cannot set bail on hundreds of crimes. And when they can set bail, they are not allowed to consider a defendant’s danger to the public, as has been the case since 1971, making it harder to keep potentially violent people off the streets.
But releasing thousands of inmates and hindering the ability to detain potentially dangerous defendants has been followed by increasing levels of crime, especially in largely Black neighborhoods. For example, in the police precinct that covers most of the Brownsville neighborhood as well as adjacent Ocean Hill, where around three-quarters of the residents are Black, shootings at the end of last year were up 144 percent and murders were up 91 percent from two years prior.
Is this correlation the entire proof of causation? Of course not. But the correlation is stark.
Fortunately, there are signs of hope. In a news conference last month in the wake of an attack that killed two N.Y.P.D. officers, Mayor Eric Adams announced an ambitious public safety plan to confront rising gun violence, including increasing resources for a unit of around 200 police officers dedicated to handling illegal-gun cases. But Mr. Adams’s remarks and the accompanying policy paper were perhaps most notable for what they did not say. They did not explicitly mention racial equity at all.
Also notable were the policy updates made on Feb. 4 by Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, suggesting a stronger stance on the prosecution of gun possession and some armed robbery charges. After taking office last month, Mr. Bragg, whose campaign cited “eliminating racial disparities” as “a primary and fundamental goal,” had originally told prosecutors to avoid seeking jail time for many such crimes.
Mr. Adams seems to recognize that what’s most important for public safety is stopping violence and bloodshed rather than fixating on the racial metrics surrounding the problem. Hopefully, other leaders will follow suit.
We should have a system that arrests, convicts and incarcerates individuals without regard to the color of their skin. Releasing inmates — or not arresting, convicting and incarcerating criminals — in an effort to redress racial imbalances only hurts Black New Yorkers. Correcting racial inequity starts there.
Jim Quinn is a former executive district attorney in the Queens district attorney’s office, where he served for 42 years. Hannah E. Meyers is the director of the policing and public safety initiative at the Manhattan Institute.
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