By Tess Cohen
A series of tragedies dominated the news cycle over the last few weeks, including horrific incidents of gun violence. In the Bronx, a baby was shot by a stray bullet. In Harlem, NYPD Officers Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera were shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance. Although homicides began to drop in the summer of 2021, headline grabbing tragedies underscore the real loss and trauma of every instance of gun violence in our city and beg the question: what can we do to prevent future suffering brought about by guns?
In his recent address on gun violence, NYC Mayor Eric Adams stuck to the playbook of many in law enforcement: casting criminal justice reform as the enemy of public safety and demanding rollbacks of hard fought victories for reformers. But his accusations are rife with misinformation about reform, and they deflect from the actual causes of rising gun violence.
New York City is not alone in seeing a rise in gun crimes. Murders rose across the country during the pandemic, suggesting that reforms in New York are not to blame. Mayor Adams appears to want a return to “broken windows” policing and the era of stop-and-frisk, recalling a time when New York City police acted more like occupiers, viewing neighborhood residents as adversaries rather than as people they swore to serve and protect. Mayor Adams missed the statistical fact that despite dire portents of police at the time, the ending of routine stop-and-frisk in New York City coincided with a multi-year drop in crime.
Mayor Adams also took aim at bail reform, using rhetoric that is neither new nor accurate. Violent crimes, including gun possession, continue to be bail eligible. Judges in our city take gun violence seriously. People arrested with firearms are less likely to be released on bail now than they were before bail reform, squarely contradicting Mayor Adams’ attack.
Nor is there data backing Mayor Adams insistence on blaming “Raise the Age” for increases in gun violence. Raise the Age ended the practice of routinely sending 16- and 17-year olds into the adult criminal justice system, regardless of the seriousness of the crime. Before this change, New York was one of the only states in the country that routinely treated children like adults regardless of the seriousness of the crimes. Violent felonies committed by 16- and 17-year olds remain in the Criminal Court system (rather than the Family Court system) unless a judge determines, after input from the prosecution, that it is appropriate to move the matter to Family Court. To roll back this reform, which puts New York on par with the rest of the nation, will hurt children without addressing rising violence.
If Mayor Adams really wants to prevent violence, he will focus in on reforms proven to work. Intensive programming for young people caught with guns instead of incarceration has been proven to reduce future crimes by participants in programs in both Brooklyn and Monroe County. Many young people carry a weapon simply because they are afraid, not because they are planning to commit violent crimes. Because of their motivations to carry a firearm, it makes sense that sending young people to jail for a few years, thereby dramatically winnowing their future options and removing them from the support of their families and communities, is less successful at preventing them from committing crimes in the future than offering programming to help with employment, address trauma, and give them new tools through therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Many studies show that we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of violent crimes. Instead, we must address the reasons people commit crimes before violent crimes are ever committed. Too often young Black and Latino men who have a history of trauma and truncated options are arrested and thrown in prison, when the best way we could help them and promote public safety would be to provide them with new opportunities and assistance. If we want a better future, we need to stop using old tools that have failed again and again, and instead use new programs that have been proven to work for the benefit of all.