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Mugging in Paradise

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Justice Stephen Breyer, a member of the liberal wing of the U.S. Supreme Court, has a vacation home on the Caribbean paradise island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies. Last week the Times reported: "Justice Breyer was in his vacation home with his wife, Joanna, and guests when [a] man entered the home around 9 p.m. The man took about $1,000 in cash and fled."

I read elsewhere that the man was armed with a machete and that the justice and his wife were playing bridge with guests.

The incident recalled for me the time I was running for mayor of New York City. The year was 1977. Crime was rampant at the time in the city as opposed to today. New York City now is probably the safest big city in America with the lowest crime rate in the country for big cities. One of the street jokes back in the bad old days was that a conservative was a liberal who had just been mugged.

One night during the 1977 mayoral campaign, I was scheduled to address a group of senior citizens in the Bronx at about 8:00 p.m. I was running late, as often happens in every political campaign, and arrived closer to 10:00 p.m. I was aware that the audience had waited for me, and I was worried about their getting home safely. I said in my opening remarks, "Ladies and Gentlemen. We all know what the major issue is in this campaign. It is crime. A judge I know who was recently mugged called a press conference after the mugging and said to the reporters, 'This mugging of me will in no way affect my decisions in matters of this kind.'" An elderly lady immediately stood up in the back of the room and said, "Then mug him again."

In those few words, she summed up the outrage that most citizens felt. They resented the lack of common sense they saw in those charged with the obligation of protecting the public, and they felt as though they were often prisoners in their own homes, and nobody cared.

Ultimately, as a result of elections, government did get the message, and those committing crimes of violence began to be treated much more severely. Mandatory sentencing laws were enacted taking discretion away from judges, and longer sentences were imposed by the legislature.

Today, crime no longer the number one issue on people's minds, pressure has been building to reduce sentences and eliminate mandatory minimums imposed for many violent crimes. Some editorial writers and opinion makers criticize the U.S. for putting so many people in prisons.

I believe it is those mandatory minimums that have been most responsible for the reduction in violent crimes. Many criminals are recidivists and two-thirds will commit new crimes or engage in parole violations and be back in prison within three years after their release. So keeping criminals sentenced for crimes of violence for as long as is reasonably possible in prison makes sense to me.

Nevertheless, I do believe that we have gone much too far in our efforts to punish the non-violent criminals by mandating very long sentences for those who use hard drugs -- cocaine, heroin and meth -- but who are not involved in violent crime. I support the efforts -- successful in some states -- to reduce those sentences. I also believe that we should allow the sealing of some criminal files of those who served their prison time and are released. Where there was no violence involved in their crime, and they perform obligations such as getting their General Equivalency Diploma (G.E.D.) and stay out of trouble for five years, I support legislation that would seal their records so they can respond lawfully with a "no" to the job application question, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" Some states already do this, e.g., New Jersey, Ohio, Florida, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., and more should. Regrettably, New York does not.

Young men who have non-violent criminal records find it very hard to obtain jobs even in good economic times, let alone during recessions. And they find it harder to get married because of their inability to support a family. Their lack of family support leads to recidivism.

It will be interesting to see whether and how Justice Breyer's judicial decisions are impacted by the trauma of being threatened by a machete wielding robber.