New York’s risky rush on criminal-justice reform

New York’s risky rush on criminal-justice reform

May 12, 2019

State lawmakers are on such a criminal-justice-reform roll, you have to wonder if they’re really looking at what they’re doing.

The latest move is a push to let all ex-felons serve on juries, where they’re now under a lifetime ban. Is that really wise?

The state Senate passed the bill, but even some Democrats were dubious. Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Oyster Bay), for one, said he didn’t think rapists and murderers should serve on juries.

If it becomes law, prosecutors will likely screen out most ex-felons during jury selection — drawing out an already long process and using up objections so that juries lean a bit more pro-defendant.

This follows such reforms as the Raise the Age (greatly increasing protections for younger defendants) the creation of a new commission to police prosecutorial misconduct and an expansion of defense rights to prosecutors’ files. Oh, and ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses.

Also on the table now: new parole eligibility for convicts aged 55 and over.

One by one, any of these moves may be prudent. But they add up to a drastic shift in the balance, such that Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan credibly charges that Democrats are busy passing a whole “criminals’ bill of rights.”

It’s all aimed at ending the evil of “mass incarceration” when America is already far down that path.

For instance, black imprisonment, like incarceration overall, is falling nationwide, Bureau of Justice Statistics data show.

The US imprisonment rate for African-American men has been dropping since 2001, and it’s down by a third since its peak in the 1990s. The rate for black women is down 57 percent from its peak and at a 30-year low.

In New York, the total number of state inmates has fallen from 72,649 in 1999 to just 46,847 today — a 35 percent drop. And more than 30,000 of those prisoners are violent felony offenders, in for murder, arson, kidnapping or rape. These prisons are not packed with innocent, wrongly convicted men and women and low-level marijuana dealers.

We’re all for well-considered criminal-justice reform. We championed the federal First Step Act and think there’s still more to do to, for example give ex-offenders better odds of making good in life.

But if reformers push too far, too fast, they’re all too likely to set the stage for a harsh swing back the other way.

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