Are Democrats trying to make convicted criminals one of their new core constituencies?
Take for example the latest criminal justice reform moves in New York City, such as the proposed closure of the nearly 90-year-old prison on Rikers Island. There are good reasons for shutting Rikers down. It is a dangerous, dysfunctional hellhole. And the New York City Council voted to partially replace the facility by building four smaller, modern prisons across the city.
Neighborhoods in the affected boroughs of the Big Apple are not necessarily thrilled with their exciting new incarceration opportunity. Many New Yorkers are quite satisfied with the “Jewel of the East River” continuing to host the city’s criminal element.
Proponents of the shutdown — which is projected for 2026 — don’t see this as a “good government” issue. For them it is all about social justice — not treating prisoners well but questioning why there are prisoners in the first place. The underlying premise is that most of the people locked up in Rikers were there unjustly. As Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “a lot of good people caught up into it. A lot of lives ruined. It did not have to be this way. It ends now.” (Well, in seven years.)
How does it end? The mayor seems to be suggesting that getting rid of the old prison will automatically reduce the number of new prisoners. The city currently holds around 7,000 people, and projects that by 2026 this number will be down to 3,300, in part because of state bail reform, education programs, and a continuing drop in crime rates. [A separate article on the systematized fraud of crime reporting must wait for another day.] The four new prisons will have just about the capacity to hold the reduced number of inmates.
Yet as Judicial Watch chief investigative reporter Micah Morrison points out, even reducing inmate populations by more than half is not enough for the prison-abolition activists. He points out that “imprisonment, to the abolition movement, is a racial justice issue, a civil rights fight.”
“We shouldn’t be building new jails,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted earlier this month. So even if Rikers was the best-run, most humane facility in the world, progressives would oppose it because they just don’t believe in locking up criminals. They care more about the life quality of lawbreakers than of the private citizens they victimize.
But suppose New York City’s projections are wrong? What if crime rates go up? What if crime rates are reported honestly? Well, never fear because decriminalization will take care of that. From narcotics use to prostitution, from to shoplifting to public defecation, progressive city councils are on the forefront of reducing or eliminating penalties for actions that used to land people in the slammer. And of course, the more you accommodate this behavior the more you get. In New York City’s case the 2016 Criminal Justice Reform Act, which softened penalties and enforcement for many such crimes, is already doing its part to help bring back the romantic grittiness of Joker-era Gotham.
In addition, many states are enacting reforms that reduce convict disenfranchisement, even for perpetrators of the worst violent crimes. This year Nevada, Colorado and Florida have all eased or eliminated conditions for disenfranchising convicts. In 2018 New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order restoring voting rights to New Yorkers on parole, in the name of fairness and public safety. And Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is pushing for felons to be able to vote while still in prison.
Other Democratic presidential hopefuls are fully on-board the “crime as a social-justice issue” agenda. Corey Booker says more black men are in jails now than under slavery and rejects his earlier support for “broken windows” policing. Pete Buttigieg believes that law enforcement needs to be rescued from systemic racism. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke backs felons voting from prison. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren says the criminal justice system is racist from “front to back.”
And of course Joe Biden is now being forced to backtrack from the successful tough on crime policies he promoted in the 1990s.
Whether this will play with suburban swing voters in 2020 is anybody’s guess, but progressive politicians seem to be betting on getting more support from people who feel victimized by the justice system than they will lose from those who fear being victimized by criminals. And you also have to wonder which public servants in New York City will find a way to benefit from the behind the scenes scrum to get a piece of the development deal on the 400-acre Rikers Island site. It will be kind of like the Nancy Pelosi-backed cronyism involved in the transfer and development of the aptly named Treasure Island Navy facility in San Francisco Bay.
Just because you push social justice doesn’t mean you can’t get rich in the process.
Chris Farrell is director of investigations and research for Judicial Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group. He previously worked as a counterintelligence case officer.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.