AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
Ex-Marine Daniel Penny announced late last month that he would testify before a grand jury to defend himself against manslaughter charges stemming from the death of homeless man Jordan Neely on a New York subway. While the case is yet another indictment of the sorry state of the criminal justice system in liberal big cities, it is also a potent reminder of how the left has been failing the mentally ill for decades.
According to witnesses, on May 1, Neely was aboard a crowded subway car when he began acting erratically and threatening the train’s passengers. As Neely began screaming that he did not care if he went to jail and making aggressive motions toward other riders, 24-year-old Daniel Penny stepped in to subdue Neely, placing him in a chokehold that resulted in Neely’s death.
A week later, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Penny with second-degree manslaughter. Penny turned himself in peacefully.
In the wake of the incident, the mainstream media and elected Democrats pounced on the incident as another alleged example of “systemic racism” (Neely was black while Penny is white). Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) declared that Neely was “murdered,” while Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) said Neely was “lynched” and shared a video of Neely dancing, adding that “black men deserve to grow old.”
The New York Times described Neely as a “dancer and artist known for his impersonation of Michael Jackson.” CNN and MSNBC began playing videos of Neely dancing on the subway on a loop, suggesting that he was simply a harmless entertainer who had been senselessly murdered by Penny.
Then other facts began to emerge – including testimony from witnesses who say Penny acted “heroically” in protecting them from a clearly deranged individual.
Court records soon revealed that Neely had no less than 42 prior arrests between 2013 and 2021. Two years ago, he was arrested for punching a 67-year-old woman in the face as she exited the subway. That same year, he was booked for trying to kidnap a 7-year-old girl and was seen dragging her down the street. Thanks to New York’s incredibly light sentencing laws, Neely was sentenced to no jail time for the assault on the elderly woman, and just four months for the abduction.
Another passenger on the train, who described herself as a woman of color and 50-year New York resident, called Penny a “hero” for his actions. “It was self-defense, and I believe in my heart that he saved a lot of people that day that could have gotten hurt,” she told Fox News. Other passengers confirmed that they feared for their lives, and at least three reported thanking Penny for his actions.
But while those facts seem to vindicate Penny, more details about Neely’s life and what led to his tragic end have underscored that, despite the left’s effort to weaponize his death in service of their identity politics crusade, it is liberal policies which make stories like Neely’s far too common.
It was soon revealed after his death that Neely was a diagnosed schizophrenic and, according to the New York Post, spent years “battling a slew of mental health issues.” One of his assault victims had even previously blasted city officials for not taking Neely off the street and placing him in a psychological care facility.
Throughout his more than 40 arrests, New York City’s institutions had many opportunities to recognize Neely’s serious health issues. They did not. As the Editorial Board at National Review wrote, if Neely’s death is an indictment of anyone, it is an indictment of the liberal government of New York: “Constrained by outdated law and updated progressive shibboleths, the city’s amply funded institutions had effectively abandoned Neely to his psychosis and his addictions, leaving him on the street to be a danger to himself and others.”
Liberals assert that people like Neely being unable to receive care is the result of Reagan-era government policies, specifically the 1981 repeal of the Mental Health Systems Act.
However, what these criticisms often miss is that, at the time the bill was repealed, mental healthcare in the United States was already in a severe state of decline that the Mental Health Systems Act had only worsened.
Mainstream media outlets also conveniently seem to have forgotten that for decades, social liberals led an international movement to end all involuntary commitment of the mentally ill in the 1960s. The cause, known as the “deinstitutionalization movement,” was a moral panic following the revelations of improper treatment at some mental institutions.
Backlash to these revelations and mass protests led millions of liberal activists to call for the end of all involuntary commitments. These activists asserted that communities could provide far more mental health support to individuals than large institutions.
This movement culminated in the 1975 Supreme Court decision O’Connor v. Donaldson. The landmark ruling established that “a state cannot constitutionally confine a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by themselves or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends.”
As a result of this ruling, hundreds of thousands of mentally ill individuals were released into the general public. Most immediately ended up on the streets, where they became prey for human traffickers and drug dealers. To this day, those most vulnerable cannot be held if they refuse treatment.
The legacy of the deinstitutionalization movement can be seen in the modern “deincarceration movement.” Proponents once again assert that community-led services are more effective for criminals than the current prison system. While there are clear issues that need to be addressed with the criminal justice system in America, the no-bail laws enacted in New York City and other jurisdictions, which are a concrete result of the deincarceration movement, are sending a clear signal that criminals can act with impunity and without any fear of consequences. The inevitable result is a growing culture of fear across America among law abiding citizens.
If liberals truly want to help the mentally ill, they must first confront the policy failures that have created so much misery in the first place. Until that time, Americans will be forced to rely on the Daniel Pennys of the world to protect the innocent from imminent harm when no one else will.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.
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