Mark Twain once said “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”
In New York State, we’re suffering through one of those rhymes.
In 1973, New York was dealing with an epidemic of drug use, with solutions coming from two main schools of thought.
The sensible approach was treatment for addiction.
However, our state’s conservative ideologues pursued a more politically expedient path to virtue signal their “toughness on crime” by criminalizing addiction.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws, as they came to be known, removed judicial discretion by imposing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crimes, which had a disproportionately negative impact on minorities.
If the removal of judicial discretion for ideological virtue signaling sounds familiar, you’re hearing one of the historical rhymes Twain referred to.
“Reforms” like the Bail Elimination Act of 2019 pushed by liberal ideologues has led to remarkably similar results: The imposition of “a least restrictive condition” analysis removed judicial discretion once again, disproportionately impacting minorities.
The oppression inflicted on people of color by the Rockefeller Drug Laws motivated my first campaign in 2004.
Despite challenges, over the next few years I worked with lawmakers to change those laws, which eventually led to New York closing prisons and becoming a model for reforms as the safest large state in the country.
In the 19 years since my first election, my position hasn’t changed on public safety.
I still recognize that treatment and diversion should be fixtures of any pragmatic office.
However, the Overton window has shifted, and a new ideological group has all but erased dialogue around the very group I fight for: victims, who tragically are disproportionately black and brown.
In 2017 and 2019, New York passed Raise the Age, bail reform, and discovery reform. The confluence of these three bills equals, and arguably surpasses, the harsh results of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Instead of over-punishing minor violations of the law, the new ideology universally regards defendants as the new victim class, resulting in minimal accountability for one’s actions.
As it relates to Raise the Age, one particular case stands out:
In the city of Albany, a 16- and 17-year-old were arrested last year en route to a drive-by shooting.
More than 100 rounds of ammunition and two illegal guns were confiscated.
Yet both teens were then sent back home into the same environment that led to their criminal behavior. What message does that send to our youth?
As it relates to bail reform, if a defendant’s risk of flight is the only consideration allowed at arraignment, is the message simply “Your violent history does not matter”?
In regards to discovery reform, if onerous requirements force prosecutors to expend most of their energy on the most serious cases, leading to procedural dismissals of other serious but lower-profile cases, what message does that send to criminals?
The response to the actual impact of these laws is a symptom of cognitive dissonance. Lawmakers ostensibly passed these measures to help minorities.
However, these laws only help defendants. What does that say about their view of minorities?
In New York City, index crimes have increased 47.5% when compared to periods prior to these reforms.
So, too, has black and brown victimization.
According to local law enforcement data from 2022, the City of Albany (more than 100,000 residents) saw 205 confirmed shots fired incidents, with 96 victims hit — with 147 guns recovered and 110 arrests made. 2022 also saw 19 homicides compared to the 5-year average of 12.
An objective observer of cause and effect can only conclude that the Legislature saw the safety of black people as a necessary sacrifice in order to achieve the abstract goal of “equity” for criminals.
Rather than signaling a willingness to listen to subject matter experts, they suggested resources for the reeducation of judges, which demonstrates both ignorance and arrogance in attempting to defend their statutes.
This callous indifference to people experiencing crimes in the inner city calls into question how much black lives truly matter.
Despite my tone, I don’t believe all is lost. I believe we have reasonable legislators who are being muted by the loud voices of the self-righteous.
It was Winston Churchill who said “the malice of the wicked was aided by the cowardice of the virtuous.”
Crime and victimization in New York will continue to thrive from inaction or “minor fixes.”
I implore those who silently agree now to find the courage to stand up for what’s right, despite the potential for political consequences.
David Soares is the district attorney for Albany County.
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