The New York Mayor’s blueprint isn’t really an anti-violence plan—it’s an assault on modest discovery, bail and juvenile justice reforms.
This story was published in partnership with Slate.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams released his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” in the midst of high profile violence including the recent shooting deaths of two NYPD officers and the killing of an Asian woman pushed onto the subway tracks. Yet the 15 page plan doesn’t offer new or serious policy ideas to address violence. Instead, it offers a series of attacks, disguised as proposed amendments, on bail, discovery, and juvenile justice reforms enacted recently in the city.
In his plan, Adams suggests that “dangerousness” be added to New York’s bail consideration requirements for the first time since 1971. Fifty years ago, the state legislature enacted a law rejecting the idea that a judge’s prediction of a person’s future behavior should be a basis for holding them in jail while presumed innocent—and for good reason. Studies in jurisdictions that allow “dangerousness” assessments or predictions to justify setting bail repeatedly show that the race of the accused person alone, controlling for all other factors, can be used to predict their “dangerousness’ determination with striking accuracy.
New York passed bail reform legislation in April 2019, ensuring that money bail was eliminated for people charged with certain offenses, primarily misdemeanors and low-level felony charges classified as non-violent. Under the reforms, limited circumstances could lead New Yorkers who lack the ability to pay bail to experience the same pre-trial freedom afforded to the wealthy. Bail reform was scaled back in April 2020, but the remaining limited protections have ensured that thousands of people are spared the horrors of pre-trial incarceration while presumed innocent.
Data shows very little connection between bail reform and crime, while incarceration itself presents a clear and constant public safety hazard—including for families and communities—and continues to impact people even after their release. New York state’s own data shows that 98% of people who are free pre-trial are not arrested for any violent felony charge, which include charges that do not have any requirement of actual harm to another person. But even in the bail reform era, 91% of all pre-trial admissions in New York City’s jails are non-white. And jail remains as deadly as ever: 15 people died at Rikers in 2021, the highest number of deaths since 2016. So the Adams proposal that judges take “dangerousness” into account when making bail determinations is counter-productive to public safety, would gravely harm Black and brown New Yorkers, and would roll back the modest reforms of the state’s recent bail legislation.
In his plan, Adams says “the voluminous requirements of the new discovery bill have jammed up too many cases.” This is a familiar refrain from New York prosecutors—and it’s false. Discovery reform was passed in April 2019 and went into effect in January 2020, replacing the state’s discovery law, dubbed the “blindfold” law. It brought New York in line with states like North Carolina and Texas, which have long mandated open file discovery, or the defense’s access to all information available to prosecutors, as a requirement for a case against a person to proceed.
Prior to reform, prosecutors could prevent the accrual of speedy trial time in a case without ever turning over essential discovery. People who wanted to see the evidence against them—or lack thereof—faced months and even years of litigation and pre-trial incarceration. Prosecutors frequently premised plea offers on the accused person’s waiver of their right to discovery, creating a coercive path out of jail or to the resolution of a case. Eleventh-hour disclosures of massive amounts of evidence, also called trial-by-ambush, were common, eroding a person’s constitutional right to an effective defense by keeping attorneys in the dark while preparing trials and dispensing advice about pleas and often necessitating additional delays. The new statute simply required the sharing of evidence by default between the prosecution and defense on an accelerated timeline, rendering claims by prosecutors and the Mayor of “jammed up” cases to be nonsense.
“The only way that the new law would impose any new obligations is if prosecutors relied on people taking pleas without ever seeing the evidence against them, obviating the need to hand it over, in a significant number of cases,” public defender Sarah Lustbader wrote in 2020, “By claiming that there is any additional obligation, they are essentially admitting that they rely on coercing pleas from people who are blindfolded.”
Adams also takes aim at the 2017 Raise the Age legislation that gave shared jurisdiction over certain charges against 16–17 year olds in New York to the family court system rather than exclusively to adult criminal court. Under Raise the Age, New York no longer automatically prosecutes 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. But these requirements are still often subject to either consent or opposition by the prosecution, particularly for felonies—such as gun possession—when charging 16 and 17 year olds. In his blueprint, Adams incorrectly states that prosecutors do not have the ability to oppose removing children’s cases from adult criminal court when they involve a gun; they can and they do, but they also often consent to these removals despite this ability in light of the law’s foundational premise.
In his attack on Raise The Age, Adams argues that minors should be punished for not speaking to police—specifically that teenagers accused of having a gun should lose the possibility of their case’s removal to family court, in recognition of their age and their ongoing cognitive development, if they do not tell police where they received the firearm. “If a 16 or 17 year old is arrested on a gun charge, law enforcement should ask the individual where they got the gun,” Adams writes. “If the individual refuses to disclose that information, prosecutors should have the ability to charge the individual in Criminal Court, rather than Family Court.” Not only do prosecutors already have the ability to oppose these removals, the suggestion that children should be punished for refusing to speak to the police is an affront to their constitutional rights.
The right to remain silent exists both as a protection from self-incrimination but also as a distinct right to silence for its own sake during police interrogations. These constitutional protections are particularly essential for children, who are even more vulnerable to suggestion from police and less equipped to act in their own self-interest than adults. It’s shocking that as criminal legal system policy around the country shifts to reflect brain development science and mounting evidence of the dangers of using child witnesses in criminal cases, Adams seeks to remove the limited protections that exist for children in police custody.
Lastly, the Adams plan suggests that the federal government wrest control of gun prosecutions from New York City’s district attorneys. “The NYPD will focus on bringing as many appropriate gun cases as possible to federal prosecutors to take full advantage of the higher penalties in the federal system for gun charges,” Adams writes. “We additionally urge the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to expand their barriers for prosecution of a gun charge, and enforce out-of-state charges for guns that have been carried over state lines.” But there are no significant “barriers” to bringing gun cases into the federal system or to cooperation between state prosecutors and the feds. Gun possession, for example, can be prosecuted in federal court. And in July, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York said it would participate in a cross-jurisdictional strike force to prosecute firearms trafficking, just two months after the DOJ announced a “Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Violent Crime” emphasizing partnering with state and local law enforcement to combat gun violence. Federal gun prosecutions, it should be noted, are also notoriously racist and ineffective in curbing gun violence.
So, not only are federal weapons prosecutions already commonplace, the city’s prosecutors are also fully empowered to incarcerate people for gun possession, and the NYPD has never ceded its authority to make arrests for any reason, often touting its number of gun arrests or gun seizures as proof of the efficacy of policing. Possession of a loaded gun in New York is charged by prosecutors as a C violent felony when there are no allegations that the gun was fired, brandished, or otherwise used in the commission of a crime—and with “loaded” requiring only that bullets are close by. People who are charged with having a gun— the vast majority of whom are percent of whom are non-white, face years of upstate time and frequently have bail set. In 2020, 96 percent of people arrested in New York City for unlicensed firearm possession were Black or Latino.
The charge of simple gun possession, not tied to any shooting, is consistently among the most common charges holding people on Rikers and in City jails pre-trial at the request of the City’s five DAs. And on Wednesday, Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg announced the appointment of a new prosecutor who will tackle gun crimes, all as public defenders report that Bragg’s prosecutors are offering steep prison sentences for simple gun possession cases.
Adams’ focus on illegal guns comes as New York State—New York City particularly—makes legal gun ownership nearly impossible. There are many reasons why people, including minors, choose to carry guns. In 2018 and 2019, the Center for Court Innovation interviewed 330 young people in New York City about guns, violence, and proposed solutions to violence. 88 percent had a family member or friend who had been shot and 81% had been shot or shot at. Most reported being harassed for small infractions or feared being shot by the police. Nearly nine out of ten hadat some point carried a gun, citing multiple factors for doing so. To automatically sentence them to 3.5 years in prison for this action—as is required when prosecutors charge people for possession as Class C violent felonies—fails to address any of the underlying issues at play.
People accused of gun possession, often victims of violence themselves, are sent back into their communities after traumatic and destabilizing incarceration with no additional resources.
The Adams plan is particularly cynical because it was released during a month where two people were pushed onto the subway tracks in unprovoked attacks, one of whom was killed, and two NYPD officers were shot and killed by a man whose mother called 911 for help with his mental health crisis. It’s likely that Adams was spurred to act in part by the media who have decided that this is an apocalpytic moment—the New York Times said January “leaves some New Yorkers fearful for the city’s future”—even though there have been 20 murders year to date in the city, a decline of nearly 26 percent from 2021. Yet none of these tragic deaths implicate any of the criminal legal reforms attacked by Adams in his blueprint.
In the case of Michelle Go, a beloved New York City resident who was shoved to her death on the subway tracks in a random attack by a man experiencing mental illness, six officers were assigned to the station that day. In the deaths of NYPD Officers Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera, the officers were sent to the scene of a mental health crisis in Harlem. They were both shot and killed, and a third officer killed the man, Lashawn McNeil, who shot them. It was McNeil’s mother who called the police for help; she later said she regretted calling 911 in the first place.
To capitalize on these deaths to implement expansions of police power and attempt to roll back common sense criminal legal reform is an abuse of the credibility afforded by public office. “Part of my frustration is that when anything bad that happens, it’s got to be bail reform’s fault,” New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said. “There’s a whole lot of things going on, and it’s so easy to scapegoat it onto bail.” New York lawmakers should join Heastie in recognizing Adams’ misrepresentations on reform and preserve the protections currently in place for New Yorkers’ rights—because the goal should be true safety for everyone