A new, reformer district attorney in Manhattan has begun adopting policies aimed at reducing mass incarceration. District Attorney Alvin Bragg just issued a departmental memo directing the prosecutors in his office to ask judges for jail time in only the most serious cases. Moreover, he directed them to limit prison sentences to a maximum of 20 years absent “exceptional circumstances.”
According to the New York Times, Bragg hopes to deliver alternatives to prison, especially for first offenders, and take into account the backgrounds and experiences of those charged with crimes.
Unless New York law requires otherwise, Bragg’s prosecutors will ask for prison time only in serious cases such as sexual assault, murder and major financial crimes. Less-serious assaults and robberies, along with gun possession with no other crime, will result in non-prison penalties or participation in diversion programs.
US incarceration rates are by far the highest in the world
There is no doubt that America needs to address the extreme rate at which it incarcerates its citizens. The United States incarcerates about 25% of the prisoners in the world despite making up only about 4.4% of the world’s population. It imprisons 655 people per 100,000. By contrast, Canada only incarcerates 104 people per 100,000.
A 2008 New York Times analysis attributed this not to the number of individual people put in prison but to the average length of the sentences, with America’s being much longer.
We need to begin reducing sentences. It appears Alvin Bragg will reverse course on the long-held NYC policy of focusing police and prosecutorial resources on minor crimes in an effort to discourage major ones. Instead, he plans to focus those resources on more serious crimes and repeat offenders.
Continuing some of the work of his predecessor, Bragg will also decline to prosecute a number of misdemeanors, including fare evasion, prostitution and resisting arrest with no other crime charged.
Reform DAs are being elected around the nation
Alvin Bragg is among a small wave of reform-minded district attorneys from around the country. Another New York DA, Eric Gonzalez of Brooklyn, is instituting some policies similar to Bragg’s. We’ve also seen incarceration-limiting policies from Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby, Kim Foxx in Chicago, George Gascon in LA and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco.
There has been some significant pushback from other politicians and law enforcement groups over the policies of these reform district attorneys. They worry that the policies could conflict with the goals of other elected leaders who run on “tough on crime” platforms. They are concerned that the lack of harsh sentences could encourage crime rates to rise.
The alternative is to do what we’ve been doing, which has put more Americans behind bars than the citizens of any other nation.