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The downside of criminal justice reform

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Recently, the nation was informed of the deplorable case of Yutico Briley, a teenager sentenced to 60 years in prison for a 2012 armed robbery in which $100 was stolen but no violence occurred. He was released this year when civil rights law professor Laura Brazelon found evidence verifying his innocence. This happened in Louisiana, the same state where Bryan Stevenson documented similar injustices 30 years earlier in his bestselling book, “Just Mercy.” 

While such cases do demonstrate that there has been systemic racism in the Louisiana judicial system, and likely other southern jurisdictions, they have been used to justify dramatic judicial changes in cities across the country that have been run for generations by liberal Democrats. 

First among these cities is Philadelphia, where District Attorney Larry Krasner transformed his office when elected in 2017. He instituted a set of sweeping reforms — among them, reducing the range of crimes considered felonies, decriminalizing lesser crimes, and eliminating bail for most criminal charges — all in the name of combating systemic racism. 

What has been the result? Clearly, large numbers of individuals have benefitted from justifiable changes in bail and sentencing. However, one unintended consequence may have been that crime increased. In 2020, Philadelphia homicides totaled 499 — 40 percent above the previous year and just below a peak number of 500 in 1990, when the city’s population was virtually the same as today. And through July, Philadelphia is on pace to break its homicide record.  

Recently, retired Philadelphia police commander Joe Sullivan told me he believes that although reforms of the criminal justice system were warranted, those instituted went too far, such as reducing illegal gun possession to a misdemeanor. The changes created an environment in which many community residents saw no upside to cooperating with the police, he said. 

Residents apparently don’t believe that if they identify someone for a shooting, there would be high bail, followed by a conviction with jail time. Criminal justice reforms included making first-time gun possession a misdemeanor, even if the individual was a convicted felon or on probation. Even a second gun offense is often treated leniently, with low bail and then pleaded down so that a felony conviction is avoided.  

“If the public was convinced that there would be swift, certain and sure consequences for committing violent crime, there would be more cooperation,” Sullivan told me. “But they see the same people being arrested over and over again, back on the street with arrogance and impunity.” 

A prime example is an eight-hour standoff with police in 2019 involving Maurice Hill, accused of shooting six police officers while trying to avoid arrest. Police records showed Hill had been arrested about a dozen times since turning 18 in 2000, and convicted six times on charges that involved illegal possession of guns, drug dealing and aggravated assault. Even Krasner said the suspected gunman “should not have been out on the streets” because of his criminal history.  

One of Krasner’s signature changes was to reduce to misdemeanor status robberies committed by youths involving property worth less than $50,000. In January 2021 alone, there were 59 carjackings, up from 18 at the same time last year, according to the Philadelphia Police Department — a more than threefold increase. There were 404 carjackings in 2020, up from 225 in 2019 and 230 in 2018, according to the department. A similar dynamic occurred in Chicago. As Heather MacDonald reported in 2018, “Carjackings have nearly tripled since 2015, with an increasing share committed by juveniles, thanks to a law exempting young carjackers from adult penalties.” 

All too often, unrepresentative examples are generalized, whether it’s racial biases in southern judicial systems or the isolated examples of police killing unarmed Black men — fewer than 15 annually for the past three years,  according to data assembled by the Washington Post. 

None of this explains the unstable families and poor school performance that produce many young men, such as Yutico Briley, who evidently believe they have no real choice in life other than to sell drugs, something for which gun possession is required.  

Indeed, his father said he pleaded with Briley to accept a 10-year sentence for a crime he didn’t commit because he needed to get off the streets to pull his life together. This is why government support for young mothers and public support for more school choice, particularly charter schools, could be among the keys to improving the life opportunities of the most vulnerable Black youths.

Robert Cherry is a retired professor of economics at Brooklyn College and a member of the 1776 Unites forum.

Tags Carjacking Crime criminal justice reforms Larry Krasner Misdemeanor Philadelphia Yutico Briley

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