Law/Justice

Will the Spike in Murder and Violence Undermine Criminal Justice Reform?

Growing criticism of big-city progressive D.A.s George Gascón and Chesa Boudin underscores the importance of distinguishing necessary reform from simply failing to enforce the rule of law.

In 1960, the U.S. violent crime rate started rising, and for three decades this was one of the most vexing and discussed problems in America. By the early 1990s, policy makers had mostly lost hope. And then violent crime started falling. And it kept falling. Meanwhile, the number of incarcerated Americans continued to climb. It was the crime decline that made possible a bipartisan movement to reckon with the injustice of mass incarceration and the failure of the war on drugs. But last year, the United States experienced the largest rise in homicides in decades, and violent crime rose particularly sharply in big cities, which could bring the return of tough-on-crime rhetoric and undermine the criminal justice reform movement. Critics say a recently elected group of district attorneys in elite coastal cities, who are dismissing routine property crimes and failing to jail potentially dangerous individuals, are exacerbating the problem. This backlash underscores why it’s so important to distinguish between worthwhile criminal justice reform and simply failing to enforce the rule of law. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is among this new crop of progressive prosecutors. He was raised by two famous left-wing radicals of the 1960s, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, and his biological parents were imprisoned on felony murder charges when he was a baby, stemming from their involvement with the Weather Underground, a radical left militant organization. Since Boudin took office in January 2020, burglary, arson, and murder have all spiked in San Francisco, though rape and assault rates have fallen, and most of his term has taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic—a time when life in the Bay Area has been far from normal. Boudin is facing possible recall for failing to prosecute and jail a man accused of committing several burglaries and then drunkenly running over and killing two women, and a man twice accused of domestic abuse who then murdered an infant. But can other progressive district attorneys strike a better balance as they reform the system? “I think that the big lie was, basically…that overincarceration, more police presence, and more prosecutions actually [were] leading to greater safety. When, in fact, it has probably led to greater insecurity,” says George Gascón, who took office this year as Los Angeles County’s new district attorney. He’s a former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer and once held the same job as Boudin in San Francisco. Gascón defeated the more conservative incumbent Jackie Lacey with his radical reform agenda, pledging to release up to 20,000 “low-risk” offenders. He immediately ended cash bail for misdemeanors and what he calls “low-level, nonserious crimes.” “We saw people that were being held in pretrial incarceration for weeks or months, simply because they couldn’t afford a very low dollar a month to bail,” says Gascón. “They were not necessarily dangerous. So the reality is, there is no connection between how much money you have in your bank account and whether you’re dangerous or not.”  Since taking office, Gascón has made good on his promise not to prosecute victimless crimes like low-level drug possession and sex work. But he’s also declining to prosecute actual property crimes like trespassing. “Data is continuing to flow, and more so recently, that shows that deemphasizing the criminal process when it comes to low-level nonviolent offenses, actually increases the safety in general, not just for those types of crimes, but even for more serious crimes,” says Gascón. 

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