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.
But the property crime rate jumped nearly 40 percent during Gascón's almost nine-year tenure as San Francisco's D.A., a fact Gascón attributes to local police retaliating against him for co-authoring California's Prop 47, which reclassified many felonies as misdemeanors.
"A lot of cops said, you know, basically we're not going to enforce any of this stuff anymore. They were against [Prop 47]. They wanted to basically teach me a lesson," says Gascón.
But Gascón's critics in Los Angeles believe he's stripping law enforcement of the ability to keep the city safe.
"Quality of life crimes are not something that you want to prosecute on every instance, but you also don't want to have a blanket policy that prohibits you from ever prosecuting them as well," says Eric Siddall, vice president of the L.A. Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the prosecutors union that sued Gascón for directing the D.A.'s office not to pursue extra harsh sentences for repeat felons or for crimes involving gang members. A judge recently ruled partially in their favor.
Siddall says that the Los Angeles D.A.'s office has been making positive reforms for years and that Gascón is disregarding public safety
"There has to be a middle ground," says Siddall. "And I think that's what our office was trying to do prior to Mr. Gascón. But when you have a blanket policy that completely ignores quality-of-life crimes, then expect the quality of life to decrease in those neighborhoods."
Seven municipalities including the Beverly Hills, Whittier, and Pico Rivera city councils have issued votes of "no confidence" against Gascón. The L.A. sheriff has publicly supported a recall.
Siddall worries that stripping prosecutors of the ability to pursue harsher sentences against gang members will set back the decades-long effort to stem gang violence in a city once plagued by it.
"He basically destroyed most components of our office and our ability to effectively prosecute cases," says Siddall. "He pretty much dismantled [the gang prosecution unit] and redirected resources to other projects….So it's very clear from his policies, his words, and his actions that he is not terribly interested in dealing with violent criminals here in Los Angeles."
But in recent years, problems with L.A.'s gang database have emerged after LAPD officers were charged with fabricating gang affiliations of individuals they pulled over, forcing prosecutors to review hundreds of possibly tainted cases.
Gascón has also opposed long prison sentences even for the perpetrators of violent crimes.
"Data indicates that…as we get older, there's a less likelihood that we're going to re-offend," says Gascón, who points out that California houses many senior citizen inmates at a great cost to taxpayers.
While it's true that people are less likely to commit crimes as they grow older, the data on the effectiveness of long sentences on deterring and preventing violent crime is mixed. One study of California's "three strikes" law found that the policy "significantly reduces felony arrest rates." Another study from the Public Policy Institute of California that examined the state's resentencing reforms, which saw the early release of thousands of inmates, found "little evidence of a relationship between more severe sanctions and better recidivism," partially bolstering Gascón's argument. The researchers unsurprisingly discovered a significant drop in drug re-offenders as the state deprioritized drug offenses but a slight rise in repeat offenders in more serious categories like crimes against persons.
"This data and science argument that he uses is baloney," says Siddall. "You're not going to have less crime by letting violent criminals out of prison. You're not going to have less crime by not punishing people appropriately. You're not going to have less crime by not penalizing someone from using a gun. You're not going to have less crime by basically saying, 'We're going to give a pass to the gangs.' That's just not going to work."
Despite his stated commitment to following the data, Gascón isn't immune to political pressure. He repealed his own order not to seek long sentences for criminals who victimize children or the elderly or commit hate crimes, claiming that because former President Donald Trump had so poisoned the country with hate, he had no choice.
"Enhancements and your larger periods of incarceration do not work, even for hate crimes," says Gascón. "However…I had a lot of people that came to me and say, 'You know, hate crimes are on the increase. And we are wary that given the posture of the national administration at the time…the message you're sending might be that hate crimes are OK.'"
While Boudin's time in San Francisco may test the limits of criminal justice reform, it's Gascón's tenure in one of the world's largest cities that could test the very concept of the progressive prosecutor: that social services can fix most or all urban dysfunction and that withholding police and prosecutorial resources can force the adoption of those alternatives.
While he faces resistance from law enforcement, city governments, his own team of prosecutors, and the legal system itself, Gascón remains committed to the idea that broad, systemic change is needed for safety and justice.
"We are a country that has increasingly become a country of have and have-nots," says Gascón. "The successful democracies in the world are the ones where you shrink that…difference between those that have incredible wealth and those that do not….And in those societies, you see not only greater levels of security and public safety, but you see a greater level of satisfaction across the board, both for those that are affluent and those that are not."
Produced by Zach Weissmueller; opening graphics by Isaac Reese
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