New Dem talking point: criminal justice reform is needed, except when it comes to guns

AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

Across the country, Democrats are ditching the defund-the-police rhetoric incessantly espoused by the left wing of the party over the past year and a half, because they know what a politically toxic phrase its become among the vast majority of voters. At the same time, the party can’t really afford to alienate the base of supporters who are still committed to “re-imagining policing”.

It looks like the Democrats may have found what they believe will be their political sweet spot in the coming months; pro-criminal justice reform, but not when it interferes with being anti-gun.

As gun violence spirals throughout the state, a handful of New Jersey’s urban mayors gathered with state lawmakers in Paterson on Tuesday to endorse a bill that would all but force judges to jail those arrested on gun charges without bail until their cases can be heard in court.

Advocates say the changes would fix a perceived flaw in the state’s landmark 2017 bail reform law, which dismantled an antiquated cash bail system that reformers said unfairly punished low-income people of color who could not afford bail. But the law has also led to the relatively quick release of many people charged with low-level offenses, including gun possession. Some city and state officials say this may be contributing to New Jersey’s dramatic spike in gun killings over the past three years.

“We want to make sure that those who are arrested with illegal weapons are detained so they’re not back on the streets, either doing the shooting or becoming the next shooting victim,” Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said at a Tuesday morning news conference in the City Council chambers. “We’re looking to reform bail reform. We’re not looking to end it. We’re looking to mend it.”

In other words, if you’re caught carrying enough fentanyl to kill off half of Ho-Ho-Ken, you can expect to walk out of jail within a few hours, and probably won’t have to post a dime in bond money before you leave. If you’re caught carrying a gun, even one that you legally own, however, these mayors want to keep you in jail until your trial, which could be a couple of years. And keep in mind that in New Jersey, the average citizen has virtually no chance of being able to get a carry permit and is not able to legally carry openly without a license. The right to bear arms just doesn’t exist in New Jersey, despite the guarantees of the Constitution.

While the New Jersey mayors claim this crackdown on gun carrying will help stem the violence in their communities, they presented zero evidence at their press event yesterday. What’s more, the mayors seemed clueless about some important facts and figures.

And none of the officials in attendance Tuesday — who included the mayors of Paterson, Newark, Trenton, East Orange and several other cities, as well as members of the state Legislature — could provide statistics about how many people arrested on gun charges were charged with another crime after their release.

In Paterson, police arrested 195 people on gun charges in 2021, Sayegh said. Of those, authorities released 75 before their trial.

But the mayor could not say how many in that group committed another offense while they were out awaiting trial.

“We don’t need to see statistics to know that we have an epidemic,” Sayegh said.

The state doesn’t have an epidemic of people carrying firearms without a permit. New Jersey’s seeing a surge in shootings and homicides, along with a tidal wave of drug overdose deaths, and while I think it’s an act of political malpractice to refuse to acknowledge the connection between the two, clearly New Jersey Democrats think it’s just smart politics.

Paterson’s mayor, for instance, talks about the 195 people arrested on gun charges last year. During that same time period, there were 1,700 drug overdoses in the city. And do you know what Mayor Sayegh had to say about it?

“Clearly, we have an opioid epidemic, like many cities around the country,” said Mayor Andre Sayegh. “You can’t police your way out of this problem.”

Why does Sayegh believe that he can police his way out of the problem of people carrying firearms without a permit if he can’t police his way out of the problem of residents keeling over because of the amount of fentanyl and heroin in the community?

The truth is that the drug overdose death rate and the homicide rate are entwined together, because many of the same folks dealing death in $10 baggies are the ones pulling pulling the trigger on their illegally possessed guns. It’s not like Sayegh is unaware of this; in fact about six months ago the state’s (also anti-gun) AG announced the bust of a “gang-related drug network linked to gun violence” in Paterson. According to the indictment, at least some of the 15 individuals arrested were accused of selling cocaine and heroin in “open air drug markets” in Paterson.

Maybe Sayegh doesn’t believe that policing is enough to curb the epidemic of drug overdoses in his town, but you’d think he’d at least be willing to use them to shut down the guys dealing heroin and cocaine in plain sight. When it comes to rising death rates, though, most Democratic politicians are adopting Sayegh’s positioning; focus on guns while giving drug dealers and gang members a pass.