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The Public Square

Ted Alcorn

June 27, 2023

The ongoing struggle over whom to shelter, how to protect the public and what it all costs

The ongoing struggle over whom to shelter, how to protect the public and what it all costs

The varied challenges of making a safer, fairer city are ever overlapping and colliding, and this year has been no exception. As New York’s state and city leaders negotiated budgets, they also deliberated (again) over the extent judges should be permitted to detain defendants before trial and the primacy of police. And invariably, unexpected violence put a spotlight on residents’ conflicted priorities for their shared metropolis. 

Budgets passed ...

In early May, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed New York State’s $229 billion budget into law, after a fifth straight session in which the ostensibly fiscal exercise was focused in large part on bail. An ambitious plan Hochul had championed to ease the state’s affordable housing crisis by ginning up production of new homes fell by the wayside, which some observers chalked up to her “single-minded focus” on how the state detains arrestees. 

As usual, the negotiations were defined through the simplistic lens of how “tough” the state should be on crime, without significant evidence the changes would reduce harm. Hochul framed the further rollback of bail reforms passed in 2019 as “improving public safety” whereas progressives who opposed the changes said they would consign “many Black and brown New Yorkers to cages.”

Hochul didn’t get all that she sought. She had originally proposed allowing judges setting bail to assess defendants’ “dangerousness,” which the state has long barred them from taking into consideration (whether they do so is another matter). Instead, the final budget eliminated the requirement that judges impose the “least restrictive” measures to ensure defendants return to court. It remains to be seen to what degree it will alter judges’ decision-making. 

In a forum of expert practitioners held later in May, people who actually provide pretrial supervision and services to arrestees said the emphasis should be less about who is detained in jail and more on how to help the people who are let go. Aubrey Fox, the executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, decried the “hyper focus” on goings-on in Albany and called for strengthening the city’s supervised release program, which serves a population that has ballooned since bail reform and that now has different need- and risk-profiles than those mandated to the program at its outset. 

In the wake of signing the budget, Hochul signaled she was now “done” with bail — but is it done with her?

Meanwhile, a handful of other criminal justice reform measures — to give elderly prisoners a better chance at parole, expunge some old criminal records and give victims of crime more equitable access to compensation, among others — languished in wait of a floor vote. 

... And budgets future

Facing looming budget deficits, New York City Mayor Eric Adams sought to pare back spending by a deadline of June 30. Progressives found in the negotiations an arena to contrast his priorities with their own and clash, again, over his support of the Police Department.

While endorsing the shift to austerity, New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay criticized a half-billion-dollar cut to the city’s vaunted prekindergarten program and suggested curbing paid overtime to uniformed employees instead, particularly the NYPD. The mayor recently inked a new contract with cops that kept raises below inflation but is still estimated to add $700 million to the budget deficit

Comptroller Brad Lander and others have made much of the city’s generous spending on police overtime, which had already run to $472 million by April. Manhattan Institute senior fellow Nicole Gelinas noted the city was piloting efforts to cut back the spending, “but there’s no guarantee that will happen.” 

At the reveal of NYPD’s recently acquired “digi-dog” robot, with a $750,000 price tag, Councilwoman Tiffany Cabán drew a contrast with cuts to libraries and food assistance. “Show me your budget and I’ll show you your values,” she tweeted.

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams established similar battle lines for the final weeks of hammering out a deal: “Cutting essential services and agencies that New Yorkers rely upon every day to succeed is the wrong path forward and budget vision for our city.”

Huddled masses yearning to breathe free — but on whose dime? 

Also lumped in the budget negotiations was the city’s approach to asylum-seekers from Central and South America, who have exploded in number and for whom spending is estimated to exceed $4 billion this year, per the Office of Management and Budget.

Adams has made much of the situation: In January, he visited the nation’s southern border and later gave a speech at the U.S. Conference of Mayors calling on the federal government to provide more funding to cities welcoming arriving migrants. And in late May, his Law Department also applied to modify the city’s “right to shelter,” citing what it said was the “unprecedented” demand that arriving migrants put on scarce city resources. Migrants account for roughly half the people in the city’s shelters, the New York Post calculated. Advocates for the rights of the homeless also condemned the proposal.

In May, Adams announced a program to transport willing asylum-seekers to neighboring counties, provoking tensions with local leaders around the state.

A death underground

New York City’s subway system is the preeminent stage for the jostle and bustle of city life, and events on its trains acquire outsize importance. When on a Monday afternoon, Daniel Penny — a white, 24-year-old Marine — put Jordan Neely — a Black, homeless street performer — in a chokehold, killing him, it set off a firestorm of discussion. 

The death occurred at the intersection of some of the city’s rawest debates — over perceptions of safety in the subway, how to treat people with mental illness, the adjudication of self-defense, and enduring racial inequities — and became a sort of Rorschach test for public officials who could interpret it according to their own values. 

Penny was questioned, then released for 10 days before prosecutors filed charges, but those seeking the Republican presidential nomination nevertheless leaped to defend him, whom they characterized as blameless. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called him a “good Samaritan” and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley urged Hochul to preemptively pardon him, arguing that, as a Marine, he was “trained to defend and protect.” That the case fell in the jurisdiction of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, already a bogeyman in GOP circles for his indictment of Donald Trump, only added fuel to the fire. 

In contrast, local Democrats lamented the incident but disagreed over how to talk about it, focusing on Adams’ reluctance to immediately denounce Penny’s actions. Comptroller Brad Lander clashed with the mayor over whether to call the death “vigilantism” and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unequivocally condemned the event. “Killing is wrong. Killing the poor is wrong. Killing the mentally ill is wrong. Why is that so hard to say?” she tweeted, describing the mayor’s hesitancy to do so as “a new low.” Speaker Adams pointed out that racism continues to dehumanize Black people and justify violence against them, and the slow wheels of justice in this case represented a double standard.

In the open air

The boom in outdoor dining sparked by pandemic-era restrictions may become a permanent fixture of city life, albeit a seasonal one. A group of city councillors introduced a bill to authorize licensed restaurants to operate outdoor dining structures from April through November, overseen by the Department of Transportation. Mayor Adams tweeted his support, saying it would “support our small businesses, create jobs for New Yorkers, and keep our streets and communities vibrant.” Open Plans, a local nonprofit that promotes livable streets and neighborhoods, also applauded the bill in a statement

Opponents of outdoor dining, organized as the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, called the bill “even worse than any of us could have expected,” saying it would serve up “the same rats, trash, noise, filth, and congestion” of the last three years. But remove those from New York City and what do you even have left? At least this way we can enjoy them al fresco. 

Don’t take outdoor dining into your own hands, however: That’s the message NYPD is sending in Northern Manhattan, where, according to the New York Post, they recently posted flyers announcing a crackdown on sidewalk barbecuing. A Brooklyn cop explained that it was for the purpose of reducing shootings, but residents argued otherwise. Per one Fordham Heights resident: “If it keeps our neighbors occupied, us occupied, our children occupied, then let us barbecue.”