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Jason Riley: Empty Prisons Mean Dangerous Streets

After a second stabbing spree by a paroled jihadist in less than three months, the British government is reconsidering its early-release policies for people convicted of terrorist acts. Bully for the Brits, but what’s taken them so bloody long?

Last November, Usman Khan murdered two people in a terror attack near London Bridge and then was killed by police. On Sunday afternoon, fellow Islamic extremist Sudesh Amman strapped on a fake suicide belt and knifed two random pedestrians before also being shot dead by authorities. Under the current system, terrorism offenders can be automatically released halfway through their prison terms. Khan had been free for a year after serving half of a 16-year sentence, and Amman was paroled less than two weeks ago. A fellow former inmate who knew Amman told a British newspaper, “The guy was definitely insane and he never hid his intentions, so it’s crazy how he even got out of jail.”

We haven’t reached the same level of absurdity on this side of the Atlantic, but give it time. In the guise of “bail reform,” New York state has implemented new policies that make it harder to keep defendants—including those with long criminal histories—locked up before trial. Proponents say the changes, which eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors and some nonviolent felonies, were needed to make the criminal-justice system fairer for low-income suspects. That argument has a certain logic to it. Whether someone is released pending trial should be determined by whether he’s a threat to the community or a flight risk, not by whether he can afford to post bail.

The problem with the reform is that judges have been stripped, in all but a few extreme circumstances, of the ability to determine the risk of releasing a defendant. “The new law prevents judges from ordering most criminal suspects jailed, or even requiring them to post bail, no matter how clear a threat to public safety they pose,” wrote the New York Post editorial board.

Since the law took effect last month, hardly a day goes by without a story in the local media about a crime committed by someone who should have been in police custody but was released due to bail reform. Victims decline to report assaults out of fear the assailant will seek revenge after being released. Police officers are taunted during arrests because suspects know they can’t be held for long. And the crooks are making a mockery of the system. Four hours after an ex-convict was charged with robbing a bank in Manhattan and released without bail, he allegedly robbed another bank in Brooklyn.

New Yorkers are also learning that “low-level” and “nonviolent” offenders feel no obligation to remain as such going forward. A man arrested for attempted rape last week in Brooklyn previously had been in jail on burglary charges and $20,000 bail. He was sprung in December in anticipation of the new policy. A man on Long Island with a history of drunken-driving convictions was arrested twice and released both times without bail inside of a two-week period—and the second time was after a crash that killed someone.

Of course, these problems aren’t limited to New York. But in recent years, and especially in states and cities led by political progressives, “criminal-justice reform” has come to mean little more than going easier on criminals. In California, stealing goods valued at less than $950 is now considered a misdemeanor rather than a felony and is likely to result in no punishment. In San Francisco, where a new mayor just ended cash bail, residents have been complaining about a recent spike in car break-ins in Safeway parking lots.

Unfortunately, the “vast majority of car break-in thieves will never see any kind of punishment in San Francisco,” according to a report last week in the San Francisco Chronicle. One man told the reporter about buying groceries at a local Safeway with his daughter. When he got back to his car and began backing out of his parking space, another car cut him off. “Somebody leaped out of the other car, smashed his rear window and grabbed his daughter’s backpack, and the car sped off,” said the paper. “Yes, San Francisco thieves are now breaking into cars with people inside them.”

After the most recent knife attack, London’s mayor complained that the prison system hasn’t done a better job of rehabilitating people, and his progressive counterparts in New York and California would no doubt share that lament. But the primary role of a prison is not to deradicalize terrorists or turn violent criminals into productive citizens. Rather, it’s to keep society safe from dangerous people. And prisons are quite good at doing that.

Jason Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.

The views expressed in opinion articles are solely those of the author and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by Black Community News.

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