Playing our role in success or failure
Was New York's criminal justice reform the issue that gave Republicans their U.S. House majority?
New York did the right thing in reforming bail laws, but politicians didn’t stand up for it. (Photo by Harry Shelton on Unsplash)
It sounds like Shakespeare, and it’s often attributed to Jack Kennedy, or sometimes to Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano. But it probably was Tacitus, the first-century Roman historian and politician, who came up with the notion that is now passed down in English as a memorable phrase: “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”
The difference between being able to claim success or dodge blame for failure often comes down to not just a matter of holding your ground, but also to how you define success. What constitutes winning, anyway? That’s especially true in politics, where perceptions often matter more than facts. With the midterm campaigns still fresh in mind, tacticians of both political parties are taking bows or slinking off stage, depending upon whether what they did is viewed as success or failure.
Can Democrats claim they won, since Republicans didn’t achieve the sweeping success usually enjoyed in midterm elections by the party that doesn’t control the White House? Or are Republicans the real winners, because taking control of the House will enable them to pester and hector Joe Biden for the next two years? And who should get the credit or blame? Elections matter, so accountability for their outcome does, too.
Here in Upstate New York, we get the sense that no place was more pivotal in the federal voting results than this state, where Republicans surprisingly flipped three House seats and won two open races, cementing their House majority. If those narrow Republican wins had gone the other way, Democrats nationally would have won 217 seats to the Republicans’ 216, with two races yet to be called. The Democratic state chair, Jay Jacobs, told The Wall Street Journal that “it looks like we underperformed.”
You wouldn’t have expected Republicans to owe control of the House in large part to New York, where they’re outnumbered 2-to-1 by enrolled Democrats. But analysts point to a single issue, more than any other, that pushed voters to Republicans in those New York congressional seats that Democrats could have held: crime. There’s a reason for that, and a lesson.
Republicans won on crime because Democrats were afraid to stand firm on their views, so they orphaned the issue — that is, they not only failed to advocate for criminal justice reform, but also didn’t even defend what they had done, which actually made New Yorkers safer. That left Republicans free to shape a narrative of dangerous crime all about us, with uncaring liberals to blame. The facts don’t support that view, but if any issue is the father of the Republicans’ success, that’s it.
The most potent campaign message in New York this year arose from a bail reform law passed by the state Legislature in 2019. It wasn’t an issue that came before Congress, so you wouldn’t think it could influence federal races. But it was the key topic of political conversation for months around the state, the cornerstone of the race for governor by Republican Lee Zeldin, and it enabled Republicans to paint all Democrats, whether in Washington or Albany, as weak-kneed in confronting criminals.
Under the new law, New York ended cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, while keeping bail in place for major crimes and violent felonies. Here’s the argument that eventually won the day in Albany: Cash bail enables people to essentially buy their way out of jail after they are charged with a crime. Since not everybody can raise bail money, poor people — disproportionately, they’re people from minority groups — often languish in a cell for months before trial, while folks with some assets go free. That’s inequitable on its face, but equity doesn’t resonate with voters the way safety does.
If you assume that most people who are charged are actually criminals, you might think it’s fine to lock people up after they’re arraigned. But we claim in America to assume that people are innocent, and thus deserving of freedom, until they are proven guilty. Pre-trial incarceration to limit that freedom ought to be a thoughtful exception, a decision reached by a judge only if it’s shown that the person charged is a threat to public safety or is likely to flee to avoid justice.
There’s not actually a crime wave in America, despite what the campaign advertising claimed. Nor does cash bail make people safer, experts say, though it’s clear that it has for years made our justice system unequal. A generation ago, as a young reporter covering courts in the New York suburbs, I routinely watched people with means who were charged with crimes quickly go back home after posting bail — with money from a savings account, say, or a second mortgage, or a relative’s loan. But defendants who lived paycheck-to-paycheck would be locked up, often losing their jobs and impoverishing their families.
But are we safer with those people behind bars awaiting trial? We are not. Studies since New York’s law changed revealed no correlation between the bail changes and crime. That same reality has emerged everywhere that cash bail has been limited: Nowhere has it led to more crime. In fact, research reveals that keeping people in jail just because they can’t post bail has what’s known as a criminogenic effect — that is, it leads to more crime, rather than reduces it.
But that message doesn’t grab our hearts as much as a story about somebody victimized by a repeat offender who is out on bail — and there are always a few of those stories around, in any state. So it’s’ not easy to sell real justice reform. Sadly, in New York this year, nobody really tried.
The focus on crime by Republicans nationally seemingly made New York Democrats fearful, and eager to change the subject. The leader of the state Senate’s Democratic majority, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, admitted as much, telling Politico in a post-election interview that Democrats “did not, frankly, rise to the occasion to explain to people what we did do and how the point was and still is not to criminalize poverty...”.
Here’s the encouraging news: New York’s reforms remain in place, and the longer our justice system engages with the practice of limiting cash bail to only serious crimes, the better the prospects remain of keeping the reform on track. But the laws were left wobbling by election results that suggest voters didn’t understand what their legislators had done, raising the prospect of renewed efforts to roll back the progress.
It's not unusual for social change to come up hard against political reality, and good people in politics who want to make society more fair may decide that they can’t face voters unless they soft-pedal their views. But here’s the thing about accountability for election results: If we want social justice — that is, if we think everyone ought to have the same economic, political and social rights and opportunities — we can’t expect the task of making that happen to be politicians’ alone.
Certainly, New York officials who tried to make the justice system more fair, and then took cover when they got criticized unfairly for their work, deserve some blame for failing to confront the demagoguery about crime. Arguably, their failure to effectively sell the reform in the first place, and then defend it in campaign season, left the field open for Republicans to capitalize on the issue around New York — and, in the end, win the House majority nationally. But champions rarely step forward without a sense that rank-and-file are standing behind them. Leaders need to believe that doing the right thing won’t leave them standing alone to face a penalty at the polls.
So the message of the election, I’d say, is that we all need to be bolder in our willingness to stand for what we believe. Quietly watching the political process play out is understandable in this era of terrifying hyperpartisanship, but not stepping forward in defense of truth ought to leave us a bit embarrassed. It’s not that we all need to take on the roles of activists and officials whose job is delivering our hoped-for gains in society, though we might give that a second thought. But shouldering no responsibility for our hoped-for successes — refusing the chance to be the progenitor of success, as the gender neutral phrasing of that old saying might go — risks leaving us orphaned in failure. Tacitus had something to say about that, too: “The brave and bold persist even against fortune; the timid and cowardly rush to despair through fear alone.”
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Hot Springs, Ark. (Fort Smith Times Record, swtimes.com)
Killingly, Conn. (The Bulletin, norwichbulletin.com)
Savannah, Ga. (Savannah Morning News, savannahnow.com)
Bergen County, N.J. (Daily Record, NorthJersey.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Methodists splintering over issues of sexuality
At the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, 38 churches in the state petitioned to disaffiliate from the denomination — one of the nation’s largest Christian organizations — because they disagree with the church’s stand in support of ordaining gay clergy and accepting marriages that are not between a man and a woman. As Robert Medley reports in the Fort Smith Times Record, the clergy and laity at the conference voiced “hurt, heartbreak and even anger” at the move, but it is one being repeated around the world as Methodist churches confront what Medley described as “issues over abortion and sexual orientation including LGBTQ rights.”
Keeping school mascot costs district almost $100,000
In mid-2021, a Connecticut state law took effect forbidding public schools from using mascot names with Native American themes, because of a sense that the names were demeaning to the people indigenous to the area. Now, as reported by John Penney in The Bulletin, the schools in Killingly will lose $94,000 in state aid because the newly-elected Republican majority on the school board has reversed a decision to abandon the “Redmen” and “Red Gals” names for the school teams. Three schools in the state adamantly refused to change; only Killingly had been slated to receive the money, which comes from native-run casinos. (Before what Penney described as the “sea change” of Republicans being elected to the school board, the Killingly teams had briefly been known as the “Red Hawks,” which seems to not be racist enough for the Republicans.) “Native American mascots, often portrayed as caricatures or cartoons, are demeaning to Native Americans and it is our opinion that they should not be used,” Nipmuc Tribal Council Chairman Kenneth Gould Sr. said.
How one college plans to handle enrollment and financial crisis
Colleges and universities nationwide are confronting financial turmoil, a result of many pressures, including demographic changes, reduced taxpayer support and demands that baccalaureate degrees carry job training. At Savannah State University, a historically black university, a confidential document obtained by Zoe Nicholson of the Savannah Morning News suggests cutting the history, English, environmental science and Africana Studies programs, among other steps. Local and state officials, the story noted, have stressed the need for HBCUs to focus on workforce development.
Drought affects New Jersey reservoirs
There’s a lot of talk about historic drought in the American West, but Matt Fagan reports in NorthJersey.com that reservoir levels in The Garden State are far below normal — and that to avoid drought levels in summertime, the reservoirs will need two feet of precipitation before spring. La Niña, the current meteorologic condition in the Pacific Ocean, will mean a decreased likelihood of nor'easters that bring lots of snow and ravage coastlines, Fagan reported.
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Is gift-buying obsolete, or am I just old?
A couple of decades back, I recall feeling a bit sorry for an elderly friend when he noted wryly that his Christmas gifts tended to be in two categories: “booze and books.” Now I’m thinking he had the right path.
Age and relative affluence have brought us to a point of not needing anything, and rarely wanting. One of the joys of the holiday season when our daughter was young was buying her presents — toys and clothes, sports paraphernalia, items big and small, from electronic gizmos to even a toboggan (she didn’t much like to ride it) and a kayak (which mostly I used, until it was destroyed in a boatyard during a windstorm). Now we are in the season when we ought to be doing Christmas shopping, and we’re more perplexed than inspired. We need nothing; in fact, we wish for less stuff. I might like some booze and books, of course.
We are quite fortunate, obviously. It strikes us that this places a responsibility on our shoulders: We need to refocus the Season of Peace on opportunities to share the joys we have experienced beyond our own home. Christmas is now more a secular reality than a religious observance, but if no other part of the traditional Christmas message reaches us, we might all do well to embrace the notion that the joy is to be shared with all — even as, according to the old story, three kings with great wealth knelt before a baby in a stall.
But the season is just getting underway. Maybe I’ll figure out some good presents for those closest to me, and perhaps I’ll even imagine something I truly hope to see beneath the tree — other than, you know, the b&b.
Thank you for joining me in this edition of The UPSTATE AMERICAN, and for traveling with me through *this shared land, our America.