Jordan Neely Wasn’t Killed by the System
News that a mentally ill man had been killed last week on a New York City subway and the conversation that followed almost immediately became a synecdoche for the wider societal debate about rising crime, public disorder, racial divides, and attitudes towards the homeless population. But whether they realize it or not, those on opposite ends of that discussion seem to agree on a core point: It was, in some sense, the fault of “the system” that Jordan Neely was choked to death on the F train.
“Had he been in treatment, Jordan Neely’s death in a subway car may have been prevented,” wrote Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Stephen Eide in City Journal. The City Journal has devoted a great deal of energy arguing that recent upticks in urban disorder suggest the need for a more punitive or carceral approach. On this account, if Neely hadn’t been out and about—either because he was in jail or perhaps involuntarily in a mental health institution—he wouldn’t have died.
But that line of thinking often fails to account for the fact that Neely was engaged with the criminal justice system repeatedly throughout the course of his life. He was released from Rikers Island, the notorious New York City jail, in February of this year, reportedly after spending 15 months behind bars. It is true that Neely would not have been available to be killed on the subway last week had he been indefinitely locked away, but we don’t lock people up in order to protect them from being choked.
Eide, refreshingly, is aware of these limitations. “Criminal-justice reformers might point out, correctly, that Neely’s many past arrests did not stabilize him,” he noted. “But nor did whatever contact he may have had with homeless outreach teams, social workers, safe-haven shelters, and outpatient clinics.” This is also true, though I’d argue it hints at the fact that the system cannot prevent every harm, no matter how many resources society equips it with.
The inverse conclusion is more popular, though, and it traverses typical tribal lines. “We should demand a full accounting from all of these [New York City] officials,” says Errol Louis in New York magazine. “Neely, it seems, had encountered many of the clinics, hospitals, and social-service organ
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