NYT: New York State Budget Deal Would Raise Minimum Wage and Change Bail Laws

The New York Times (4/27/23) reported that changes to bail laws would “for the first time allow judges to set bail with public safety in mind”–in other words, allowing judges to punish people for crimes without having to go to the bother of convicting them.

In a victory for proponents of mass incarceration, Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a budget deal that would include toughening up the state’s bail laws. It would, as the New York Times (4/27/23) described in muted detail, “for the first time allow judges to set bail with public safety in mind.” It’s a major rollback of efforts to limit the long-term jailing of people who have not been convicted of crimes and who cannot afford the high price of bail.

The right-wing New York Post (4/27/23) quietly gave itself a bit of credit for this change, quoting Hochul’s statement about the change:

There’s some horrific cases—splashed on the front pages of newspapers—where defense lawyers [told judges,] “follow the least restrictive that means you have to let this person out,” and some of those cases literally shocked the conscience.

Hochul didn’t name the New York Post, but everyone knows what she’s talking about here. The Post (e.g., 4/21/217/31/229/27/222/1/233/28/23) has led a never-ending drumbeat calling for more pre-trial detention. Never mind that, as Civil Rights Corps founder Alec Karakatsanis (Twitter3/27/228/30/22) pointed out, studies show that bail reform has increased public safety while reducing the prison population.

Demonizing criminal justice reform isn’t just a New York phenomenon, as Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has painted progressive district attorneys in Manhattan, San Francisco and Philadelphia as pro-crime lawyers who have turned these cities into war zones (FAIR.org1/14/22). The Murdoch machine has also pilloried the slogan “defund the police” (Fox News3/23/227/20/22).

Favorite punching bags

Bloomberg: Fear of Rampant Crime Is Derailing New York City's Recovery

Below an alarming headline, a Bloomberg article (7/29/22) pointed out that crime in New York City wasn’t so rampant after all.

And it isn’t just Murdoch. San Francisco—which, because of its importance in the hippie and gay liberation eras, is supposedly the focal point of US liberal governance—has been a favorite punching bag across corporate media as an out-of-control crime city (Atlantic6/8/22BBC4/7/23Newsweek4/11/23). Contrary to that narrative, the housing business is still booming in the Bay Area (Real Deal3/1/23).

Bloomberg (7/29/22) ran a story with the headline, “Fear of Rampant Crime Is Derailing New York City’s Recovery,” even as rents keep rising (CNBC12/8/22CNN4/13/23) and job growth continues. But the Bloomberg piece offered an interesting nugget, saying that “violence is a potent political issue, and people are highly susceptible to what politicians and the media say about crime.”

That’s according to John Gramlich, a researcher of crime data for Pew Research Center, who added, “That may not be reflective of all crime or what the actual crime rate in a particular area is.” This hysteria, as Gramlich suggests, is based on feelings, not data. And that same Bloomberg piece noted that there have been “nearly 800 stories per month across all digital and print media about crime in New York City” since “tough-on-crime” Eric Adams became mayor and made policing a top priority.

It should go without saying that the hysteria around crime in these cities is, to put it mildly, overstated. City and State (4/28/23) noted that in New York City, “crime levels remain low, especially compared to the 1980s and 1990s.”

Out of the US’s 100 biggest cities, San Francisco’s homicide rate comes at No. 66, and New York City ranks 80th. Chicago, another popular subject for conservative sermons on crime, does have one of the country’s higher murder rates, but there are 13 cities with worse ones—many of which are in states with Republican governors. Deep South states like Louisiana and Mississippi have homicide rates of 21.3 and 23.7 per 100,000, respectively, while coastal New York and California’s rates are 4.8 and 6.4.

Shockingly non-shocking

The City: 10 Years a Detainee: Why Some Spend Years on Rikers, Despite Right to Speedy Trial

People spend years behind bars without being convicted of any crime (The City, 8/17/22).

Weigh that against the things that don’t shock politicians. Consider Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager who committed suicide after spending three years in pre-trial detention at the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail over charges of stealing a backpack (New Yorker9/29/14). Reuven Blau—co-author of Rikers: An Oral History—found several pretrial detainees waiting years at Rikers for a trial, with one person even waiting a decade (The City8/17/22).

The Urban Institute (12/14/22) noted that 19 people died in pretrial detention in New York City in 2022, while in the country as a whole, “between 2008 and 2019, 4,998 people died while in pretrial detention—and this number only includes reports from the United States’ largest jails.” In case anyone needs reminding: These people who died behind bars were presumed innocent under the nation’s legal system.

For Blau, it’s frustrating that the “tabloid hysteria” can move the political dial. (Disclosure: Blau and I worked together as reporters at New York’s Chief-Leader.) As he put it, the Post can always point to someone going in and out of city jails, saying, “Oh my God, he’s a danger.” But, Blau asked: “What are we doing to help this person, or to figure out what isn’t working?”

“It’s the selling of fear,” he said of newspaper coverage of repeat offenders. “They don’t ask, ‘How did this person get here?’ The answer to this is more Rikers Islands. They create this very black-and-white world, and it plays to the public.”

What gets lost in the media conversation, Blau said, is that being “tough on crime” is never about looking at the structural inequality—lack of schools, social services, and housing—that allows crime to fester. “It’s not just about being tough on crime, but about helping people get the help that they need,” he said.

Crime hype consequences

WaPo: The bogus backlash against progressive prosecutors

Crime went down in San Francisco under DA Chesa Boudin (Washington Post, 6/14/21)–but that’s not what the local news was saying, so it’s not what voters believed.

Actual data about life and death in jails, about justice not being served, is not enough to move New York’s governor, but the sensationalism about crime is enough. That’s the news here. For example, New York Democrat Rep. Sean Maloney lost his congressional race last year, thus helping to tip control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans. Afterward, he told the New York Times (11/10/22) that “voters in New York have been told by the News Corporation machine, principally the New York Post, that crime is the No. 1 issue.” In his race, he noted, “$10 million was spent echoing those themes.”

He added that Hochul and “the rest of us have to contend with the hysteria of the New York Post and of Fox News combined.”

Maloney’s statement is an oversimplification, as many believe that the state’s Democratic Party leadership’s lackluster campaign efforts provided an opening for Republicans (Gothamist11/17/22). And it certainly isn’t just the Murdoch outlets hammering the crime issue (FAIR.org11/10/22), although they are probably the loudest.

But combine this with Hochul’s statement about news coverage of violent crime—or, for that matter, the fact that propaganda about crime in San Francisco helped the ouster of progressive DA Chesa Boudin (Politico6/8/22FAIR.org7/11/22). Then the problem becomes clearer.

The sensationalism around crime stories, often devoid of context and data, isn’t just annoying to read. It has very real policy consequences that will impact real human beings.