By David M. Greenwald
It was looking bleak for criminal justice reform in June —Chesa Boudin in San Francisco was ousted, George Gascón in Los Angeles looked to be next, Democrats and left-leaning communities seemed to be turning their back on CJR.
In San Francisco, Democratic Mayor London Breed installed Brooke Jenkins as DA to replace reformer Boudin, and Jenkins proceeded to reignite the war on drugs.
A series of scandals hit Jenkins, and, while it appears she will win election in her own right, the margin over a political novice who has been quite outspoken is underwhelming.
As the San Francisco Chronicle put it in a non-endorsement editorial, San Francisco “needs wholesale systemic changes and a district attorney willing to say as much. Jenkins, thus far, hasn’t. And we’re not confident she will if the political winds don’t allow for it.”
While reformers have at least temporarily lost San Francisco, nationally things are looking up. In Maricopa County in Arizona and Alameda County in California, reform-minded prosecutors were in striking distance.
A public defender has won in Hennepin County in Minnesota as well as in Iowa.
The right put a lot of effort into knocking off California Attorney General Rob Bonta—and that has failed miserably. Outgoing Sacramento DA Anne Marie-Schubert couldn’t even get past the primary and the general election challenge went down 60-40 statewide.
“Ton of effort in that,” Cristine Soto Deberry, the director of the Prosecutor’s Alliance told the Vanguard. “A lot of attempts to try and connect Bonta to George and Chesa suggest that therefore he would be dangerous for the state. Of course, that proved not to be true or to work.”
She added, “I think Bonta’s win is a really huge indication of where the state as a whole is on these issues. Maybe individual concerns here and there. People do want to see reform in the criminal justice system.
“Conservatives are resurfacing the failed policies of the 1990s and criticizing Democrats for supporting data-driven policies proven to create safer and healthier communities,” said Deberry. “Ironically, Democrats joined Republicans thirty years ago in an era that led to America’s dubious distinction as the mass incarceration capital of the world, increased taxpayer spending by billions, all while failing to produce more safety. While many Democrats learned from this failure, it seems others are determined to repeat it.”
But Democrats have done better it seems when they back reform rather than sounding like Republican-lites on crime and reform.
The Prosecutors Alliance noted, “At a rally last week for Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican United States Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, speakers at a fire station just over the county line from Philadelphia said they should build a ‘border wall’ to keep out crime.”
Dr. Oz pushed for proposals to increase penalties for some offenses along with proposed incentives to recruit police, and said Democrats were unsupportive of police officers and wanted to “release people convicted of murder.”
He said “let police do their jobs … We don’t want to be part of a social experiment.”
The big winners in Pennsylvania appear to be the Democratic Governor-Elect Josh Shapiro who defeated far-right, Trump-backed Doug Mastriano, as well as John Fetterman over Oz and, perhaps even more so, Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia DA.
Republicans filed articles of impeachment against Krasner and accused Fetterman of being soft on crime due to his support of criminal justice reform.
Fetterman won and Krasner’s Republican enemies will fail at their impeachment attempt and may even lose control of the House.
Meanwhile, the data continues to undermine the argument by the right.
An exhaustive new study shows that homicides increased less rapidly in cities with forward-thinking prosecutors, and research shows 8 of the 10 states with the highest murder rates are red states.
In California, following a review of statewide criminal justice data from the Department of Justice, the Los Angeles Times reported that “the biggest risks for homicides came in conservative counties with iron-fist sheriffs and district attorneys, places where progressives in power are nearly as common as monkeys riding unicorns.”
For Deberry, blaming progressive prosecutors for the rise in crime is preposterous.
“It’s like suggesting Sizzler Steakhouse is responsible for the entire economy,” she told the Vanguard. “It’s a complex system with many actors and many intersecting systems. So there is no one person or one institution that’s going to change the trajectory of crime in a county or a city.”
The Vera Institute of Justice found that, contrary to the election narrative on crime, “violent victimization rates are still at lower levels than before the pandemic”
Gabe Edelman pointed out, “While pundits speculated that it would definitely shape the outcomes of high-profile races, exit polls suggest a different story. For example, the Reuters exit poll by Edison Research found that crime was the most important issue for only about one out of ten voters. “
Vera believes that “the narrative that the United States is in the midst of a historic violent crime wave may not have gained much traction with the electorate because nationally, violent victimization rates are still at lower levels than before the pandemic.”
Vera argues that the FBI national crime data set “is not the only government data source.”
“As many researchers and journalists have cautioned, the FBI’s police-reported crime data is troubled by inaccuracies and incomplete coverage,” they find. And that data “is not a reliable measure of people’s experiences of safety or harm and offers an incomplete view of violence trends. Instead, it measures law enforcement response to certain types of crime, and its creation involves discretion, interpretation, and estimation.”
They note nearly half of serious violent crimes go unreported to the police.
Vera had three key findings:
- The increases in aggravated assaults reported by the FBI might have been, at least in part, a result of changes to crime classification by police agencies.
- Many experiences of crime are never reported to the police and, therefore, are not counted in the FBI’s statistics.
- Without greater transparency in its methods, it is impossible to determine the extent to which data released by the FBI is truly reliable or accurate.
Prior to election day, it appeared that there would be a roll back of reform efforts. But, consistently, the public has supported reform.
Crucial to changing the media narrative is, as Cristine Soto Deberry says, “to remind people what we have been doing.”
Deberry explained, “The predominant system is still the system we have had for the last 50 years in this country. The majority of prosecutors and police and sheriffs and corrections facilities are run by people with a traditional point of view. And we need to remind people that those failures are what we’re still experiencing.”