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N.Y. Democrats can’t bail out of a crime debate

“Dems have a real problem,” a prominent Democratic lawmaker in New York City tells me.

“Something I learned on this job is that if someone tells you they’re experiencing something, don’t waste your time telling them they’re not experiencing it.”

The pol was talking about state Democrats’ instant rejection of Mayor Adams’ latest abrupt call for what would be a third round of rollbacks to the bill lawmakers originally passed in 2019 eliminating cash bail for many crimes.

Adams, who won office on a promise to fairly restore a sense of safety, keeps asking for help as the crime numbers have mostly kept climbing on his watch. Even with murders and shootings down a bit so far this year from 2021, though still way up from 2019, his poll numbers have plummeted as 70% of New Yorkers say they feel less safe than they did before the pandemic while just 3% feel more safe. Eighty-five percent of New Yorkers and 91% of Black New Yorkers want more cops on trains.

It’s a completely different story online, where prominent pundits and pols racked up likes and impressions in viral posts circulating charts from a Bloomberg News article, “Fear of Rampant Crime Is Derailing New York City’s Recovery,” showing that media coverage of crime is up much more than crime itself, and that the numbers now are still much better now than they were in the late 80s and early 90s.

Few of the people sharing the charts seemed to notice that they show crime is up.

Or that those “bad old days” were 30 years ago. Most New Yorkers here today weren’t here then, and those of us who were know damn well that things could be worse. That doesn’t make what’s happening now OK.

In fact, violent crime is up significantly since 2019 in cities across America, making it hard to believe that bail reform is driving the rise here even as it’s become the crude — in all senses of the word — proxy for a broader conversation about the role a broken-down criminal justice system has played in that sharp rise.

Cash bail was always a moral mess that meant people were locked up, ahead of a trial, because they couldn’t afford their freedom. But New York has never had a “dangerousness” standard, and until bail reform passed in 2019 judges routinely used bail amounts as an ad hoc way to approximate one. Now, there’s far less discretion left, for better and for worse.

Adams is at least trying to rhetorically balance fairness and safety. Maybe that’s a low bar, but he’s one of the only pols here clearing it at a moment when, judging from the polls, the lock-‘em-up set is closer to the mark than the bail reform defenders as both sides cherry-pick numbers supposedly supporting their arguments.

Then again, Adams keeps alternating between talking about what a great job “his” police are doing when shootings go down and what a terrible job judges, prosecutors, lawmakers and basically everyone else is doing when shootings go up — which helps explain how he angered fellow Democrat Carl Heastie to the point where the publicly restrained Assembly speaker came thisclose to calling the mayor a liar.

A functioning justice system should be swift, certain and fair. Democrats who seem concerned only with fairness are trying to balance on a one-legged stool.

Elected officials committed to increased social investments to preclude tomorrow’s crimes need to offer a credible plan to people fearful of becoming today’s victims.

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There’s a reason that Lee Zeldin, a Trump supporter with a paper-thin agenda, is only 14 points behind accidental Gov. Kathy Hochul 14 weeks before Election Day in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican statewide since 2002. And that Adams, while he bristles at the comparison, sounds a lot like Zeldin on the need to keep predictably dangerous people locked up while their cases proceed through the criminal system.

If Democrats who don’t like that plan have a better one for ensuring that our justice system is swift and certain, this would be the time to speak up instead of just playing endless defense on the bail reform law.

In Whit Stillman’s marvelous 1994 movie “Barcelona,” there’s a memorable exchange involving a far from quiet American abroad boasting about all the reading he’s done while waiting for the Sixth Fleet to come in:

“One of the things that keeps cropping up is this about ‘subtext.’ Plays, novels, songs — they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So, subtext, we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?”

“The text.”

“OK, that’s right, but they never talk about that.”

Siegel, [email protected], is a senior editor at the non-profit news outlet The City, and a Daily News columnist.

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