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Opinion

Editorials of The Times

Posted November 14, 2018 11:10 p.m. EST

A Real Chance at Criminal Justice Reform

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that a new criminal justice reform proposal has emerged in the Senate less than a week after the departure of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But Sessions — a devout reactionary on matters of criminal justice — never met a reform effort he didn’t want to smother. As a senator, he fought against comprehensive overhaul like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. As attorney general, he pursued hard-line policies stuck in the 1980s, especially when it came to low-level drug offenses. Reform advocates speak of him with the same level of affection as gun-control advocates do Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s longtime frontman.

And now that Sessions is gone, a bipartisan collection of senators is pushing a plan that addresses some of the core shortcomings of an earlier House version of the legislation that was supported by the White House. The hope is to move the bill during the lame duck session, before the chaos of the new Congress, with its newly Democratic House majority, takes hold in January.

For this to happen, lawmakers say that President Donald Trump must embrace the measure and nudge congressional Republicans to do the same. After being lobbied by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and various senators, Trump did just that at a White House event on Wednesday, praising members of both parties for “pouring their hearts” into the compromise and declaring the bipartisan effort “a nice first step.” In this early test, the president is signaling that he indeed wants to make progress on critical issues that enjoy broad support. Lawmakers from both parties should follow suit.

A crucial feature of the Senate plan, called the First Step Act, is the inclusion of so-called front-end reforms with the goal of a more rational sentencing process. The House version, passed in May, focused solely on “back end” reforms, such as improving prison conditions and easing inmates’ re-entry into society. But tending to the existing prison population without tempering the draconian sentencing laws that caused that population to explode in recent decades is, as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has put it, “naïve and unproductive.” That’s why reform advocates saw the House bill as worse than nothing, a cheap attempt by Congress to move past the issue without addressing one of its core problems.

The Senate bill aims to be more comprehensive. It would reduce mandatory sentencing guidelines for certain drug crimes, allow judges greater wiggle room in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders, do away with the “stacking” provision that tacks on years for the use of a firearm during the commission of a crime and, at long last, make retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing gap between crack and powder-cocaine offenses.

Details of the bill began making the rounds early this week, and the initial reviews among advocates were solid, if not entirely glowing. Most notably, some reformers expressed disappointment that the bulk of sentencing changes would not apply retroactively, leaving thousands of inmates serving excessive terms under the old guidelines. But even the skeptical agreed that the plan was a major step forward.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a prominent voice in the reform movement and one that vigorously opposed the House’s bill, quickly came out in support of this version. “The original First Step Act would have little effect on reducing prison populations and was a concession to Jeff Sessions — one of the only people against sentencing reform,” said Inimai Chettiar, head of the center’s Justice Program. “We support this week’s Senate compromise bill because it includes several key sentencing reform provisions” carried over from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

Further fueling optimism about the legislation’s future, last week the Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement in support of the bill, specifically endorsing its sentencing reforms. This is a significant shift from February, when the group sent Trump a letter opposing previous sentencing reform efforts. The bill has also been endorsed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, the National District Attorneys Association and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. Other groups have withdrawn previous objections.

Reform advocates expressed optimism that the yearslong impasse on this issue would at last break now that Sessions was no longer crusading against a deal — at least not in his capacity as the nation’s top law enforcement official. Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, has met with Kushner and is said to be more amenable to change.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is expected to whip the bill on the floor in the coming days. He has long pledged to hold a vote if he could find at least 60 supporters. On Wednesday, however, McConnell began to sound suspiciously like he was preparing to renege on that promise. Lawmakers from both parties ought to push to make sure he doesn’t. Republicans have a clear incentive to act now, before they lose control of the House. And if Democrats resist the temptation to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, they can seize this opening to make progress on an enduringly vexing challenge.

New York’s Amazon Deal Is a Bad Bargain

Throughout its 14-month search for a second headquarters — which has concluded with the dual selection of Long Island City, Queens, and Arlington, Virginia — Amazon talked of its need for things like transportation, housing and a business-friendly environment.

But did Amazon really select New York City for its transportation system? The subways are a shambles. The company couldn’t have chosen New York for its affordable housing because, as in Seattle, there isn’t any. As for outdoor recreation, our beaches and parks are jammed, our soccer fields overrun. There’s a lot more green space elsewhere. Cost of living? Hardly a selling point, unless you are seeking to increase your operating expenses. And no, Amazon didn’t choose New York because we have real bagels — although it couldn’t hurt.

Amazon wants to develop a 4-million-square-foot campus by the East River because of the talent that resides in New York. Lots of it. According to the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, New York has more than 320,000 tech workers in the labor pool, the most in the nation. (Washington is second.) That talent commands high salaries, great benefits and won’t move to Pittsburgh or Austin, Texas, or any other of the perfectly nice cities that tried to woo the online giant.

Which raises the question: If New York has what Amazon wants, why is it paying the company so much to make the move? Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who offered to replace his given name with the company’s to land the deal, are doing a victory dance.

“New York can proudly say that we have attracted one of the largest, most competitive economic development investments in U.S. history,” Amazon Cuomo said. They seem to have done so by overpaying.

Landlords and real estate developers can rejoice at the prospect of soaring property values and rents, and restaurateurs, craft brewers and kombucha makers will see new customers among the 25,000 jobholders with an average salary of $150,000 that Amazon promises to hire over 10 years.

But the plan calls for the state to dispense $1.525 billion to the company, including $1.2 billion from its Excelsior program, which will reimburse Amazon $48,000 for every job. Another state agency, Empire State Development, will offer $325 million to the Amazonians tied to real estate projects. As for the city, Amazon can apply for tax credits from programs known as ICAP and REAP that reward companies for job creation generally, and outside Manhattan specifically, that could be worth north of $1 billion. (And the campus is in a federal redevelopment area that qualifies for corporate tax breaks, letting the company’s major stockholder, the world’s richest man, keep more of his wealth.)

Oh, and Amazon wants a helipad for its chief executive, Jeff Bezos. No problem.

Cities that lost out to New York offered far more in financial incentives. But the Commonwealth of Virginia is spending a piddling $22,000 per job in the initial phase of development in Arlington, and payments will max out at $750 million if Amazon creates 37,850 jobs. The state is also throwing in $295 million in transportation improvements, including a bridge to nearby Reagan National Airport so Bezos can remain close to his copter. That’s still less than half of what New Yorkers will be paying out.

The prospect of handing Long Island City over to a company recently valued at $1 trillion seems distorted to some Queens politicians. They sense gentrification by fiat — another neighborhood sacrificed to the tech elite.

“I welcome the jobs if it means Amazon investment in LIC infrastructure, without us having to pay a ransom for them to be here,” said the neighborhood’s state senator, Michael Gianaris.

That is, rather than the city paying off Amazon, Amazon should be required to invest in the subways, schools and affordable housing. It could also be required to include job guarantees for lower-income residents of Long Island City, not just flimsy promises of job training.

Nothing has been carved in stone yet. The agreement is a memorandum of understanding, not a binding contract. No final deal should be pushed through without public input or approval. The mayor and governor would benefit from soliciting ideas from New Yorkers themselves, both those who live in Long Island City, and the other taxpayers footing the bill for the generous subsidies about to be given to the company.

It’s distressing that a mayor and governor who can’t come together for the sake of the subways or public housing somehow managed to find common ground by doing an end run around the City Council and steamrollering the land-use process.

We won’t know for 10 years whether the promised 25,000 jobs will materialize. We do know that for decades states and cities have paid ransoms in the tens of billions of dollars to attract or “keep” jobs only to find themselves at the losing end of the proposition when companies moved on after the taxpayer freebies ended. During the Great Recession, it became commonplace for the auto industry to abandon one community after another despite lining its pockets with government money. Job promises were left in the dust of bankruptcy. Even in better times, economists have made a convincing case that these job development payout schemes aren’t worth it.

New York City has long played this incentives game to encourage companies to bring jobs here or expand. (The New York Times Corp. has been a beneficiary.) The mayor argues that the increase in net tax returns of $13.5 billion that Amazon will provide over 25 years is ample return on investment.

But the requirements of job creation and retention now favor big cities such as New York. Throughout the world, big cities have become economic powerhouses because of their ability to concentrate the resources that global corporations increasingly need. The days when companies such as General Electric, IBM, AT&T and Mastercard fled the city for boring suburban campuses, where innovation goes to sleep, are over. Building infrastructure for Amazon’s future benefit may be too generous a bargain for it when there’s a compelling need for housing and schools and transportation for all New Yorkers right now.

Bezos has owned a home here for years. He knows what our city has to offer; and as the web’s biggest retailer, he knows what he’s getting in setting up shop in Long Island City: a discount. So welcome, Jeff. Hope you enjoy your helipad.

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