For all the patronizing attitude toward New York’s low-level criminals on the part of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his supporters — that thieves and burglars bear no responsibility for their own behavior because they “need help” — not all criminals are mentally ill or irrational in the choices they make.
Exhibit A is Isaac Rodriguez, The Post’s “Man of Steal.” Like most of us, Rodriguez, 23, is a mostly rational person: When the reward or punishment for his behavior changes, he’ll change his behavior accordingly.
Last year, police arrested Rodriguez 46 times for shoplifting, including 37 times at a Jackson Heights Walgreens. Was Rodriguez newly destitute because he lost his job in the pandemic and desperate for bread?
Nope: As he forthrightly notes, shoplifting was his job. He stole high-value goods to resell, to feed his drug habit.
Now, he’s finally at Rikers, serving a sentence until the end of the year for shoplifting at a different drugstore that had taken out a restraining order against him. And Rodriguez is OK with that. He told The Post that “I would’ve died sooner or later” if he “was still out there.”
A reasonable prediction, considering that New York City suffered 1,233 overdoses during the first two quarters of last year (the latest data available), up 80% from pre-pandemic levels and the highest number on record.
Now, Rodriguez wants to get his GED and progress from there. Good for him, and good luck to him — and let’s hope the city does give him the help he needs to achieve this goal.
But how did Rodriguez change his attitude? The carrot may work for some people — but many of us also need the stick. Rodriguez stole, over and over again, because he perceived — correctly — that there was no punishment for such behavior.
Now that he does face such a punishment, he wants to change that behavior so that he doesn’t face such punishment again. With the cycle he got himself into now broken — doing the immediate “work” of stealing for the immediate “reward” of getting high — he wants to think longer term.
What broke the cycle? Not an “alternative to incarceration.” Incarceration.
Look at the ’90s
Indeed, what many people miss about the early-1990s “tough on crime” era in New York City is that it wasn’t an era of mass incarceration. Between 1990 and 2019, the population held at Rikers Island fell from 22,000 on an average day to 7,000. Though the declines started later, the trend is similar at the state-prison level.
This wasn’t because New York had gone soft on crime. It was because people were committing less crime, from shoplifting to car theft to murder.
Why would they do that? It wasn’t because we started making better people or that the drug trade hasn’t long offered an easy temptation above an entry-level minimum-wage job. It was because people knew that pursuing a career of crime wasn’t a rational decision: They would get in trouble.
Incarceration skyrocketed, by contrast, in the ’70s and ’80s. People could get away with lots of low-level crime — until they did something really bad and went to jail and then prison for a long time. This trend is reviving itself, as both crime and the number of people in jail rise again.
Based on what Rodriguez says, it’s a good thing he stole stuff in Queens rather than in Manhattan. As Manhattan DA Bragg has put it, people who commit crime to feed addictions should be afforded “repeated opportunities” to avoid jail because “relapses are part of the road to recovery.”
So is dying. These second — and third, fourth and 46th — chances run out on the street, as the OD rate shows. As Rodriguez told The Post, “This is a blessing in disguise.”
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.