There have been several explanations offered for why crime has increased in New York over the last few years, but Harry Wilson thinks decisions made by state government officials have contributed, if not fueled, the problem.
Wilson, one of four Republicans running for governor this year, unveiled his public safety agenda on Friday. The rollout included a stop in Syracuse, where he held a press conference to discuss his 14-page plan.
His strategy focuses on four areas, including ending cashless bail. In 2019, the Democratic-led state Legislature passed and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to eliminate bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses. Since its adoption, Republicans have blamed bail reform for increases in crime.
There have been amendments to the law — Gov. Kathy Hochul pushed for more changes in this year’s state budget — but it remains in place. And for Wilson, that’s a problem.
“What we have seen is a long list of stories and statistics of people’s lives being upended by folks who were out on cashless bail when they shouldn’t have been,” he told The Citizen in an interview on Friday.
In his plan, Wilson proposes adding a dangerousness standard to set bail — New York is the only state without one — and allowing for judicial discretion. He thinks it’s common sense for judges to “decide what the parameters for bail consideration should be.”
He also pushes back against the “defund the police” movement. Instead of cutting funding for police departments, he wants to support police departments. That would include increased staffing, training and more tools to combat crime in communities. Specifically, he wants to ensure there is funding for plain-clothes units and neighborhood safety cameras.
“We’ve had a series of political actions that have devalued the contributions of law enforcement,” he said. “I think we need to reverse that.”
So-called “rogue” district attorneys are targeted in Wilson’s plan. He singled out Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who he says is “failing our citizens.” Bragg was criticized after issuing policy directives that his office wouldn’t prosecute certain offenses, including resisting arrest. He also told his prosecutors that armed robbery in businesses should result in a misdemeanor charge if there isn’t a “genuine risk of physical harm.”
Bragg has since reversed many of those policies.
Wilson, who attended Harvard with Bragg and donated to his campaign for district attorney, said district attorneys are elected to enforce the law, not decide which laws they want to enforce.
“The governor has the authority to remove DAs who are not doing their job,” he said. “I would use that power to do that — to make sure DAs are enforcing the law.”
There is a collection of other reforms Wilson proposes in his plan. Whether it’s bail, parole or sentencing, he thinks there should be a different approach to how crimes involving repeat offenders, violence and weapons are treated. He said those elements of crime are “particularly concerning” and need to be addressed.
One byproduct of the ongoing opioid epidemic is the surge in fentanyl overdoses. Wilson wants to take a more aggressive approach to stop the flow of fentanyl into communities. One proposal is to increase penalties for fentanyl traffickers.
He also panned parole reform, specifically the “Less is More” law that is being implemented. One part of that law is the discharge of 8,000 parolees from supervision, which was completed at the end of March. The parolees were eligible for discharge under the 30-for-30 provision, which rewarded them with 30 days off their sentences for every 30 days they weren’t in violation status.
Wilson is concerned that the 8,000 individuals who have been released from supervision won’t be monitored and could commit new offenses.
One issue he acknowledged is a problem is the security situation in state prisons. Assaults on corrections officers reached an all-time high in 2021. The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the union representing corrections officers in state correctional facilities, has been urging Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration and lawmakers to tackle the problem.
NYSCOPBA has complained about the recent enactment of a solitary confinement reform law and a spike in violence. Wilson thinks the law should be amended so that violent offenders can be penalized. Under the law, incarcerated individuals can spend no more than 15 consecutive days in segregated confinement.
Wilson argues that if his plan is adopted, New York will be the safest state in the nation. But first, he needs to be elected governor.
He faces a crowded Republican primary field. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin has been endorsed by the state GOP. Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and an ex-Trump aide, and Rob Astorino, a former Westchester County executive who was the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 2014, are also seeking the nod.
Wilson, though, has experience running a statewide campaign. In 2010, he narrowly lost to state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat. It’s the closest any Republican has come to winning a statewide race since George Pataki was reelected governor in 2002.