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Republicans blame Democrats for rising crime. Here's the complicated truth

Republican congressman Lee Zeldin campaigns for governor outside Rikers Island jail in New York.
Martin Kaste
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NPR
Republican congressman Lee Zeldin campaigns for governor outside Rikers Island jail in New York.

In New York's race for governor, Long Island Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin has gained ground on incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul by repeating a simple message.

"There is a crime emergency right now in New York state," Zeldin declared at a mid-October campaign event outside Rikers Island jail, where he accepted the endorsement of the Corrections Officers' Benevolent Association.

"Time and again, one new pro-criminal law after the next, where was Kathy Hochul?"

Zeldin is talking about a series of laws passed in recent years by the Democratic-majority state legislature, which has been in the vanguard of the national movement to reduce incarceration. Prisoners are now guaranteed more rights in the parole process, they can earn their freedom more quickly, and fewer minors are being prosecuted as adults. The most prominent of the changes, though, was the bail reform of 2019, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

That means more criminal defendants stay out of jail before trial. Critics say some have used that freedom to drive up the crime rate.

Weeks from midterms election day, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul responded to violent incidents on the subway by increasing the number of officers patrolling the system.
Martin Kaste / NPR
/
NPR
Weeks from midterms election day, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul responded to violent incidents on the subway by increasing the number of officers patrolling the system.

Liberal criminal justice reform policies in the country coincided with the upheaval of the pandemic

"You get arrested with a gun in New York City this year — almost 17% of those people already have an open felony case. And that's up from 12% in 2017," says Michael Lipetri, New York Police Department's chief of crime control strategies. "So we're seeing career criminals carrying firearms in New York City like we've never seen before. That's a recipe for disaster."

But defenders of bail reform look at the statistics and come to the opposite conclusion.

They say the changes were long overdue, given the dire conditions inside of many jails — such as New York's Rikers Island — and the fact that cash bail usually means poorer defendants have to await trial in jail, while wealthier people go free.

"For a long time, Black and brown communities have been harmed by the policies and laws connected to our legal system," says New York City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender and strong proponent of bail reform. "This is us trying to right some wrongs, and we've done it in a way that has not had an effect on public safety, and that's what all the data and research show."

The complicated truth is that liberal criminal justice reform policies in New York and elsewhere in the country coincided with the upheaval of the pandemic. The same period saw a record-breaking surge in gun purchases, school closures, economic distress and other societal disruptions. With so many social variables in the mix, it's nearly impossible to isolate a single cause for higher crime.

Republican campaigns are, nevertheless, making the case that liberal policies are to blame. In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled legislature has spent the campaign season holding hearings about the alleged failure of Philadelphia's progressive district attorney, Larry Krasner, to prosecute enough gun crimes. They may try to impeach him before election day.

"It is a fundamentally anti-democratic, fundamentally fascistic effort to erase the votes of the people," says Krasner, who was easily re-elected by Philadelphia voters in 2021. And he says the Republican charge that he doesn't go after violent criminals is unfounded.

Larry Krasner, the progressive district attorney of Philadelphia, has been the subject of Republican efforts to impeach him and to associate him with state-level Democratic political candidates in 2022.
Martin Kaste / NPR
/
NPR
Larry Krasner, the progressive district attorney of Philadelphia, has been the subject of Republican efforts to impeach him and to associate him with state-level Democratic political candidates in 2022.

Concern that Democrats don't take seriously the demoralization and effectiveness of police after protests

"My office prosecutes a higher proportion of the gun arrests that [police] make than my predecessor," Krasner says.

"I'll tell you who we release!" he continues. "We're not going to go after you if you're simply a buyer of a small amount of weed, and we're not going to go after you if you're a prostitute."

He says the low conviction rates for serious crimes can be traced back to a police department that doesn't have the resources it needs.

The same could be argued in other big cities. Despite protestors' calls for the "defunding" of police in 2020, most departments retained or increased their budgets. But many also lost officers, who quit or retired in large numbers, especially in big cities run by Democrats.

Peter Moskos, a former police officer who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says he worries that Democrats aren't taking seriously the reduced effectiveness of policing since the protests.

"There is a real attempt at denialism," he says. "And I think a lot of that comes from a movement that was focused solely on reducing mass incarceration, which is a movement in principle that I support."

Peter Kerre founded a volunteer group called "Safewalks," and says New York City's streets remain dangerous. But he opposes efforts to roll back criminal justice reforms that have released more people from jail and prison.
Martin Kaste / Martin Kaste
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Martin Kaste
Peter Kerre founded a volunteer group called Safewalks, and says New York City's streets remain dangerous. But he opposes efforts to roll back criminal justice reforms that have released more people from jail and prison.

Fears an overreaction by Republicans

Moskos points out that the national total of people in jail, prison or probation has decreased significantly in the past decade, and now it's time for liberal Democrats to acknowledge and fix instances of reforms that went too far. If they don't, he says he fears an overreaction by Republicans.

"It's a vacuum that will be filled by the Trumpian right," he says, "and that won't be pretty."

But community activist Peter Kerre disagrees. He founded a volunteer group called Safewalks to escort people home, following attacks on women in the Bushwick, Brooklyn neighborhood during the depth of the pandemic.

"It's true that there are people who slip through the cracks, and end up committing crimes again," he says. But as someone who participated in the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, he says, "We've heard about all the people unjustly locked up, a majority people of color, and to reverse anything without looking at implications of racism would be just going back to square one."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.