Congressional Democrats from New York are distancing themselves from the Manhattan district attorney’s “stay out of jail free” policy that downgrades some felonies and abandons prison sentences for other crimes, a move that is wildly unpopular with city police and business leaders.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, who represents parts of Queens, said the edict by new District Attorney Alvin Bragg “might ultimately lead to even more serious offenses” when criminals realize they won’t be prosecuted for lower-level violations such as jumping a subway turnstile without paying the fare.
“So it affects my folks … because they travel and work in Manhattan,” Mr. Meeks said. “[Mr. Bragg] wants to make sure that things are fair and equitable. But I also understand the police commissioner, who knows that with [failing to prosecute] resisting arrest, people feel they can get away from [accountability].”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens and is considered a contender to become the next leader of House Democrats, said he is unfamiliar with the new policy, which has been highly publicized. Mr. Jeffries said he has faith in new Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, and new Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell, who espouses a “broken window” tough-on-crime stance.
“Mayor Adams has been very clear that public safety is a prerequisite to prosperity,” Mr. Jeffries told The Washington Times. “As a former decorated law enforcement officer, who also was a captain and a lieutenant who walked the streets protecting New Yorkers during a very difficult time, I think that we are in good hands with Mayor Adams.”
Mr. Bragg, the city’s first Black district attorney, issued a memo quickly after taking office on Jan. 1 that ordered his staff not to seek prison sentences for crimes except for murder and other extremely violent offenses. He is downgrading felony charges in some cases, including armed robberies and drug dealing.
Further, a nonprosecution policy applies to crimes such as trespassing, larceny under $250, minor driving offenses, disorderly conduct, drug possession and prostitution.
The city’s leading business organization, the Partnership for New York City, demanded a meeting with Mr. Bragg to outline the concerns of business owners, who are described as irate and alarmed.
“I have never heard so much spontaneous upset,” Partnership CEO Kathryn Wylde told the New York Post. “My members are saying, ‘What is this?’”
Police officers also are frustrated, and several prosecutors in Mr. Bragg‘s office have resigned.
“Bragg’s office is setting a dangerous precedent,” said retired NYPD Detective Erik Pistek. “A lot of cops are pissed. The city is reverting back to the old days.”
He said of turnstile jumpers, “That’s where you catch guys with guns and warrants, or they’re immediately fleeing a crime they just committed. I would hope the new [police commissioner] will allow cops to go a little more heavy-handed on these perps. The cops I know are willing to give her a chance.”
Commissioner Sewell told the city’s nearly 35,000 police officers last week that she is “very concerned” the new policy will affect “your safety as police officers, the safety of the public and justice for the victims.”
City Council member Joe Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island, said his constituents believe the policy is “awful.”
“Forget just the people in Manhattan — 1.6 million commuters work there every day, a half-million tourists and daytrippers visit every day,” Mr. Borelli said. “These are the people that our current mayor is rightfully trying to convince to come back to work and play.”
Republicans including Andrew Giuliani, a candidate for governor, and former mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa are talking about a long-shot proposal to recall Mr. Bragg. An online petition has been started.
Mr. Bragg, speaking to supporters at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Harlem, defended his plan.
“This is going to make us safer,” Mr. Bragg said. “It’s intuitive. It’s common sense. I don’t understand the pushback.”
He said the policy is aimed at getting services for troubled people instead of incarcerating them.
“We criminalize poverty every day of the week,” Mr. Bragg said. “We criminalize addiction. We’ve all seen the story of the person who’s on their eighth arrest and people say, ‘Well, how’d this happen? How’d that assault happen?’ Well, there were seven prior times with that person struggling with addiction or mental health, we didn’t connect that person to services.”
Among the elected officials supporting the policy is Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a first-term New York Democrat and an addition to the House’s far-left “Squad.” He wholeheartedly agrees that letting some criminals off the hook will prevent mass incarceration.
“There are too many people incarcerated for minor incidents that alternatives to incarceration programs would be very helpful in …ensuring they’re not incarcerated again,” said Mr. Bowman, whose district includes part of the Bronx. “Those are the things that I think DA Bragg is working on — de-carceration.”
Mr. Meeks said he wants to learn more about Mr. Bragg‘s policies and that he is talking with the other New York City district attorneys, including his own in Queens, to assess the plan.
“I hear that he has a vision,” he said of Mr. Bragg. “I hear what he‘s talking about.”
A New York City police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the policy is already leading to more brazen attitudes among criminals. He pointed to the assault and robbery of an elderly Asian American woman last week, an attack to which he responded.
“That kind of thing in the middle of Forest Hills, Queens, I don’t think you would’ve seen at any time before,” he said. “So I think it just becomes certainly something that I think they’re more emboldened.”
He said of his fellow officers, “I think a lot of cops at this point are numb to a lot of this. We expect it’s kind of been done already. What [Mr. Bragg] is doing is making it official and actually putting it on paper.
“I think certainly it’s a safety issue,” the officer said. “If you resist arrest and it’s not one of these [priority] crimes, then [Mr. Bragg] is not going to charge you for resisting arrest. So if I lock somebody up for something that this guy’s not going to prosecute, even though it’s in the penal law, they know now [they] can get away with resisting arrest.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the location of Rep. Gregory Meeks‘ congressional district in New York City. The district includes Queens.