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Eric Adams Takes Aim at Criminal Justice Reform
He'll have the bully pulpit to do real damage to a movement - if that's what he wants
In the prestige coverage of the Eric Adams-Andrew Cuomo summit last week, much of the attention focused on the relationship between the two alphas. Would it be a redux of Cuomo v. de Blasio? Would they be friends? Is it something stranger? “Mr. Adams and Mr. Cuomo are not thought to have any deep personal bonds, but Mr. Adams’s familiarity with Albany — the two overlapped briefly while he was a state senator — may ease the early stages of their new relationship, and could help Mr. Adams as he seeks to build allies in the Legislature,” the Times reported. “Mr. Cuomo, for his part, is heavily reliant on support from Black voters, and a strong relationship with Mr. Adams, who is poised to be the second Black mayor in New York City’s history, may also be in Mr. Cuomo’s political interests as he heads into an election year.”
Indeed, these are all real questions. Cuomo undercut Bill de Blasio, the outgoing mayor, to a near-sociopathic degree, damaging New York City in the process. Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, will be a tougher mark, as a former cop with his own streak of unpredictability. Cuomo needs Black voters to win re-election next year; Adams’ deepest support comes from the working-class Black neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. If Cuomo is inflammatory, Adams can always top him, and he is close to several large city-based labor unions. The Cuomo re-election bid next year will be much weaker if Adams opposes it.
Speculating on this dynamic, though, only matters so much. Better to look at policy outcomes and what Adams, with his new bully pulpit as mayor of New York City, will actually do. One of the few journalists to report on the substance of the Adams-Cuomo summit, Newsday’s Matthew Chayes, found that Adams was willing to criticize several of the landmark criminal justice reforms that were passed when Democrats took control of the State Senate in 2019.
“New York City is suffering through a “pandemic of violence,” Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams said Wednesday, calling for judges to set bail more often for those accused of violent crimes, stricter enforcement of existing laws, and a “look” at “unintended consequences” of recent legislative changes to the state's criminal justice system,” Chayes reported.
At the event, Adams said that “there is a lack of fear of being caught with a gun” and called “this is very dangerous. And we need to connect the dots.”
According to Chayes, Adams targeted the “Raise the Age” legislation, which changed the law so that those as young as 16 would not automatically be tried as adults. New York was only one of two or three to have had such a law.
“Yes, we need to look at all of these new laws that are taking place,” Adams said, to make sure they “don’t have unintended consequences based on how we enact them.”
Adams went on to criticize criminal court judges, who can set bail but are not doing so as much as he would like for certain crimes. “Our judges are not giving bail on cases where they are allowed to give bail,” Adams said.
Like de Blasio, who championed “broken windows” policing when he hired Bill Bratton as police commissioner, Adams said he wanted the police to more aggressively enforce quality-of-life complaints, like dirt bikes and illegal noise-making activity on the road. “We’re going to enforce the laws in our city,” he said.
If Adams is willing, already, to target the bail laws—cash bail was partially eliminated in the 2019 legislative package—and question the wisdom of changing New York’s retrograde practice of charging young teenagers as adults, criminal justice reformers will have a very powerful enemy. Conservatives have wrongly pinned New York City’s surge in murders and shootings on the change in the bail laws that went into effect in 2020, even though these spikes are national in scope—most major American cities have seen increases in shootings and murders from 2019—and bail reform was not enacted in other localities. If Adams, a Black Democrat who will take office with a genuine working-class coalition, is able to make these same arguments in the media, it is possible that public opinion could move against the cause of reform, especially if preventing gun violence is tied to the idea of charging individuals thousands of dollars to leave a jail cell.
Adams alone cannot make any changes to the laws on the books in New York State. Almost all fall under the purview of the state legislature and Cuomo. Even Cuomo himself needs to twist arms in the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Senate, and it’s unlikely the legislative leaders want to drastically weaken laws they just passed. Raise the age is not changing. New York will not fully reinstitute cash bail as long as Democrats are controlling the State Senate. Adams will not get the tangible changes he maybe seeks.
But the danger lies in what Adams can say. He is now a national figure, as all New York City mayors and mayors-to-be turn into, and he is making regular appearances on cable TV. He is fast becoming a staple of CNN, MSNBC, and even Fox. Before June, what he said, as the Brooklyn borough president, barely rated as a curiosity. Now it’s the stuff that moves news cycles. Adams can make these recent reforms less popular in both white and nonwhite neighborhoods, especially if the media is amplifying his message. Revanchist forces have always dreamed of a Democratic leader who can parrot their talking points. Adams might cynically cast the broad reform movement as the product of lily-white affluence. In a small weekly newspaper, few would probably notice. They will if he says it on Morning Joe.
In the 1990s, Adams rose to prominence as the police captain willing to criticize the NYPD from the inside. He still retains something of this contrarian impulse, enough that his old police union chose not to endorse him in the primary. But Adams did not wage a campaign, like de Blasio in 2013, on a message of pure reform. Adams focused far more on reining in gun violence and toughening up the department, explicitly rejecting the defund the police movement. He understood, rightly, many people in working-class neighborhoods are worried about bullets flying in their streets. It is easy to imagine the NYPD, under Adams, retaining the worst of the de Blasio era excesses—a heavy hand toward protest movements—while embracing what made the department, under Michael Bloomberg, so sinister: increased surveillance and militarization. The Adams NYPD, at the very minimum, won’t represent much of a break from the past.
As much as any politician, we must pay attention to what Adams says and does. He has a penchant for incendiary statements and curious behavior. And he is deeply serious. For the next eight years, potentially, he will be one of the most powerful Democrats in America.