By David M. Greenwald
Right behind inflation and economic concerns are concerns about rising crime. And there is a ready culprit for that in the minds of many—progressive prosecutors.
We have already seen it across the country—blaming progressive prosecutors for the increase of crime or perceived increase of crime. In San Francisco, the supposed liberal voters have removed Chesa Boudin from office. In Pennsylvania Republican legislators are attempting to remove Larry Krasner as Philadelphia DA. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has at least for now removed Andrew Warren in Tampa Bay. In Los Angeles, the voters nearly put the recall of George Gascón on the ballot.
Further, CNN notes, overly focusing on the demise of people like Boudin “is to disregard progressive prosecutors who are successfully plowing ahead with ambitious agendas as midterm elections loom – and even to diminish the value of efforts to reshape a system that disproportionately disadvantages people of color.”
CNN cites Josie Duffy Rice, a legal observer who noted, “The paradox of prosecutors is this – they have the power to cause a lot of problems, but not enough power to solve them.”
She added, “Prosecutors are still prosecutors. But having someone in office who practices some level of restraint is necessary. It will not fix deeper-rooted problems in San Francisco or anywhere. That’s not the job. But it will reduce harm.”
This is a poignant comment. When the Chronicle last week declined to endorse the appointed replacement of Chesa Boudin they noted, “S.F. needs a generational talent to make a difference as D.A. These candidates aren’t that.”
The problem that the Chronicle didn’t seem to grasp as it asks “what the next district attorney is supposed to do about this quandary” is that perhaps the answer lies beyond the DA—and turning out the previous DA made things worse, rather than better.
Instead, the Chronicle argues that locking people up for poverty and addition “results in racial bias and poor outcomes,” while “letting chaos reign in the streets clearly isn’t working either.”
The reality is that unless you can address housing, mental health needs, substance abuse needs, education and job training, you are not going to solve the problems of chaos. And that is not going to be solved by throwing more people into a cage.
That’s the point James Forman, Jr, son of the legendary civil rights leader and himself a Yale University law professor, told CNN.
“For most of my lifetime, the only way you became a prosecutor was by saying that you were going to lock up more people – and for longer and in worse conditions – than your opponent,” said Forman, who used to be a public defender.
He said, “The idea that there’s a new generation of people who are saying things like, ‘Let’s talk about decriminalizing low-level offenses. Let’s talk about restorative justice. Let’s ask ourselves if a long prison sentence is justified in all of these cases. Let’s look at old convictions to see if they were obtained using false information’ – we need people asking these questions throughout the system. And one place we need them is in the prosecutor’s office.”
Unfortunately, the voters don’t have the patience to wade through spikes in crime—in part due to the disruption of the pandemic—and politicians lack the will to address the core problems. So the blame falls conveniently on those trying to fix the system—even if most haven’t really changed a whole lot yet.
This is the problem that former ACLU National Political Director Udi Ofer has identified in a Time op-ed.
As Ofer notes, in the midst of this heated midterm election, both parties are attacking the crime issue.
Republicans are attempting to paint the Democrats as soft on crime. And Democrats’ response to is tout their own tough-on-crime message.
“They’re slamming Republicans as the ones who are soft on crime and not ‘backing the blue,’ as well as attacking parole reform, bail reform, and efforts to no longer prosecute drug possession,” Ofer argues.
He notes, “While Republicans are leading this charge, both parties are playing with fire, as the political rhetoric being deployed this election season has the potential to trigger a new surge in incarceration, as occurred following previous election cycles that starred tough-on-crime rhetoric.”
This, he argues is the same process that between 1973 and 2009 led to “an expoenitial growth in incarceration, from approximately 300,000 people in prisons and jails in 1973 to 2.2 million by 2009, making the U.S. the largest incarcerator in the world, with a rate 5 to 10 times higher than Western Europe and other democracies.”
But now we are seeing a reversal again, “just as nationwide incarceration rates were beginning to slowly drop, public anxiety over crime is being turned into a wedge issue between the two political parties to undermine progress made on civil rights and criminal justice reform. Bail reform, police reform, parole reform, and sentencing reform are wrongfully being blamed for a rise in crime. These criticisms come on the heels of gains made by the civil rights movement, this time under the banner of Black Lives Matter, which has drawn renewed attention to the nation’s history of police violence and white supremacy, and has generated among the largest civil rights protests in U.S. history.”
Moreover, “this political strategy appears to be working. An October Pew Research Center poll found 61% of registered voters saying violent crime is very important when making their decision on who to vote for this year, up from 54% in March. An October New York Times Siena College poll also found 3% of voters citing crime as the “most important problem” facing the country, up from 1% of voters in the same poll in July, a difference that can make or break a close election.”
There is no evidence that crime actually soared during this period, but there was no evidence crime was going up in 1994 when a wave of anti-crime legislation led to things like national sentencing reform (in the wrong direction) and three strikes.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Ofer argues. “In fact, research conducted by organizations like Vera Action and HIT Strategies has found that while voters care deeply about crime, they want more than the one-dimensional tough-on-crime message being delivered.”
But here we go again.