Shortly before a new city policy was to take effect June 1 allowing some 18- and 19-year-olds charged with second-degree assault, robbery or burglary to gain no-bail supervised release, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said the change “should more than triple the number of defendants” eligible for the Youth Engagement Track previously limited to 16- and 17-year-olds.
OCJ made this sound like a positive development. That isn’t necessarily a majority opinion, and for good reason.
The newly eligible older teens would be turned loose while accused of crimes that often involve force and sometimes a deadly weapon. It would present them with an opportunity to directly threaten any witnesses who may have played a role in their being arrested.
Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch is among the harshest critics of the new policy, saying in a statement, "'Progress’ like this will doom this city and crash its economy by making our streets dangerous once again.”
He said he believed Mayor de Blasio hoped to use the change to generate votes for his floundering presidential campaign. Our own sense is that the Mayor’s plan to close Rikers Island may be the driving factor. The city’s jail population has steadily declined in recent years, although there are still more than 2,500 inmates above the 5,500 the Mayor has cited as the trigger point for closing Rikers and using smaller borough jails to house those who remain.
One way to speed the reduction in inmates is to broaden the offenses for which alternatives to jail are used. But it’s dangerous business to be turning older teens back to the streets while they stand accused of violence-related offenses. If too many people were being locked up in the recent past for nonviolent offenses, with their incarceration often affecting present and future employment, that’s something that can be addressed without swinging so far in the other direction that persons with a history of violence are returned to the streets prematurely.
Psychologists tell us that younger violent offenders often are harder to get under control because they have difficulty controlling their impulses and they don’t fully grasp the consequences of their actions until it is too late. We don’t share the Mayor’s confidence that counseling the youths will magically transform them in most cases.
A day or two after Mr. Lynch spoke, his union honored dozens of cops for special work, among them Dalsh Veve, who is still recovering from severe brain injuries he suffered two years ago when a 15-year-old, Justin Murrell, sped off at the wheel of a stolen car with the cop clinging to the vehicle until he fell to the street. Two years later, he remains under 24-hour care and has severe memory problems.
Mr. Murrell had 11 previous arrests for crimes, including three for felony robberies and three for violating his parole. No doubt a judge or two had the idea that he was salvageable.
We hope the new policy doesn’t blow up on the Mayor as teens whose histories argue that they should be held on bail remain able to keep doing what originally got them into trouble. But history tells us that the city is playing with fire here.
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