On his third day in office, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg put forth a sensible, safe, and fair criminal justice policy that the city has long needed: stop prosecuting so many New Yorkers for low-level offenses and divert those law enforcement resources to reducing violent crime. In New York City, needless incarceration has wreaked havoc on people’s lives, particularly for families of color, the financial and social impacts lasting generations. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 337,000 New Yorkers have spent time in prison; three quarters of the state’s formerly imprisoned population is Black or Latino. Decades of research has proved that mass incarceration tears apart neighborhoods, creates immense racial disparities, and extracts wealth from communities across the nation, creating and perpetuating intergenerational poverty.
Our city is worse off when we over-punish, period. And the district attorney’s policy is rooted in decades of research and successful decarceration reforms around the nation.
But instead of welcoming this policy and its benefits for New Yorkers, some are attacking it. These critics claim it would bring the city to the point of a crime apocalypse. They are crying wolf.
They also seem to have forgotten the basics of mass incarceration. As former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put it back in 2013: “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Nearly 40% of the U.S. prison population is behind bars for no compelling public safety reason, according to Brennan Center research. Another report from the National Academy of Sciences finds that incarceration has dramatically increased without yielding large crime-reduction benefits for the country. Study after study shows that imprisoning people for low-level offenses doesn’t reduce crime.
These criticisms of a prosecutor who has vowed to move away from using incarceration as a knee-jerk response to crime are not new. Reform-minded prosecutors across the country have come under scrutiny from police unions or conservative media outlets for being so-called “soft-on-crime” and not taking public safety seriously. Yet, there is simply no evidence to back up those accusations. First of all, murders, for example, which rose significantly in 2020, increased at similar rates in cities with Republican and Democratic leadership.
And reforms that reorient scarce government resources to focus on violent crime and away from over incarcerating those charged with low-level crimes work. For example, a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that defendants who were not prosecuted for lower-level misdemeanor cases in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, where a so-called progressive prosecutor vowed not to prosecute a whole host of low-level crimes, were 58% less likely to face a criminal complaint over the following two years than those who were prosecuted for similar charges.
Critics keep pointing to recent increases in crime as a reason to abort the district attorney’s policy. That logic doesn’t follow – see the basics of mass incarceration (above). Moreover, his policy puts more law enforcement time, money, and effort into reducing violent crime – something that opponents leave out. Indeed, last week the district attorney announced that he’d created a new position to oversee his office’s work on gun crime because combating gun violence is his top priority. And yesterday, the district attorney issued a follow-up memo to his staff stating that people walking in Manhattan with guns will be prosecuted and held accountable, and that commercial robberies with a gun and at knifepoint will be charged as felonies.
Manhattan voters elected an experienced prosecutor who campaigned on delivering a more fair and just criminal legal system that delivers both humanity and public safety to Gotham. We owe him the opportunity to deliver on his promise.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen is the director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, a former assistant district attorney, and co-chaired the Bragg transition team.
Derek Perkinson is an executive at the National Action Network, serving as its Crisis Director and New York State Field Director for the past four years.