Will rising public safety concerns derail criminal justice reform?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

San Francisco residents last week voted to remove the city’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, from office less than three years after he was elected on a promise to break from the “tough on crime” strategies that have been at the core of America’s criminal justice system for decades.

Boudin, 41, was one of the most recognizable names among a wave of progressive prosecutors elected in cities across the U.S. who pledged to reduce mass incarceration, end the so-called war on drugs and hold police accountable for their misconduct. The criminal justice reform movement, which had been steadily gaining steam for years, got a major boost in the wake of nationwide racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

But homicide rates began to spike across the country that same year, and voters’ concerns about crime have steadily ticked up in response. San Francisco also experienced an increase in property crimes and a spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans — issues recall campaigners used to portray Boudin as failing to protect public safety.

Elsewhere in California, Rick Caruso — a former Republican who pledged to crack down on crime and homelessness — appeared to finish first in the primary for mayor of Los Angeles. He will face Karen Bass, a progressive Democrat currently serving in the House of Representatives, in a runoff in November.

California progressives got some positive results last week as well, with candidates in other Bay Area counties putting forward strong showings and the state’s reform-minded attorney general posting a massive primary lead over his Republican challengers.

Why there’s debate

Amid these mixed signals from voters, debate over the long-term prospects of criminal justice reform has raged. In the eyes of many political observers, including both those who favor and those who oppose reform, the results in liberal L.A. and San Francisco indicate that the public’s appetite for a less punitive approach to crime has dwindled dramatically in the face of rising concerns about public safety.

Conservatives have seized on Boudin’s recall to make the case that the policies of progressive prosecutors are directly responsible for increased crime rates. That view is not necessarily supported by the data — violent crime rose in both blue cities and red rural areas — but the argument may still be convincing to voters who feel less safe than they did a couple of years ago. Some pro-reform commentators say the trend shows that public support for an alternative to tough-on-crime policies was always fragile and many Democratic voters were willing to abandon the cause when it came time to follow through on making actual changes.

But others argue that the criminal justice reform movement is still making progress. They say Boudin’s recall is much more about his shortcomings as a candidate and the political idiosyncrasies of San Francisco than it is about any nationwide shift away from reform. As evidence, they point to positive results last week from progressive DA candidates not just in California, but across the country. Some also make the case that Americans mostly still want to see mass incarceration reduced and police held accountable, but reformers will need to do a better job of addressing reasonable concerns about public safety.

What’s next

In the coming weeks, San Francisco Mayor London Breed will name a temporary replacement for Boudin who will serve until voters elect a new DA in November’s midterm election. The race for L.A.’s mayor will also be decided in November.

Perspectives

Criminal justice reform faces strong headwinds, but the movement is still pushing forward

“Boudin’s loss is not a death knell for the progressive prosecutor movement. But it is a reminder of the fear-driven politics that have long influenced policy around criminal punishment and incarceration.” — Piper French, Bolts

Progressives are being penalized for their failed policies

“As California goes, so goes the progressive movement in America, and on Tuesday it suffered a major political rebuke. The recall of left-wing prosecutor Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and the rise of mayoral candidate Rick Caruso in Los Angeles are apt punishment for progressive policies that have produced rising urban anarchy.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Voters want changes, but progressives have pushed things way too far

“When people are unsatisfied with the status quo, they’re willing to take risks on something new. What they don’t like is being told that what they want — security, clean streets, a place where their kids can play without stumbling over someone sleeping under the jungle gym — must be sacrificed for a fading utopian ideal.” — Nancy Rommelmann, Reason

Despite one attention-getting loss, reformers notched plenty of wins

“Taken as a whole, Tuesday’s election results show little evidence of an end to the criminal justice reform era here or across the nation. Most Californians want a justice system that is fair, measured and responsible, not one that is based on fear and the longest possible prison terms for the greatest number of people. With a few notable exceptions, they made that clear by the choices on their ballots.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Liberals’ commitment to true reform was only ever skin-deep

“The lesson of the successful Boudin recall and the growing Caruso campaign is that feeling guilty, putting up BLM yard signs and buying a copy of ‘White Fragility’ is easy. Actually supporting decarceration and meaningfully changing our racist systems is much more difficult, messier process that requires patience and commitment. For too many, however, the goal was never to meaningfully change anything: It was to simply Feel Bad and move on to business as usual.” — Adam Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle

Rising crime makes reform hard to defend even when the status quo was also failing

“A world where crimes occur provides an unending supply of fodder for critics of reform, even as tough-on-crime policies have continuously failed to rein in some of the most dangerous periods in history.” — Akela Lacy, Intercept

The pro-reform momentum of 2020 was a blip that has since faded away

“Anti-policing supporters for Democrats are not often acknowledged, other than to immediately cast them aside as radicals and outliers. There was a brief moment in the wake of the 2020 uprisings when national publications made overtures toward them, but that turned out to be a flash in the pan.” — Lexi McMenamin, Teen Vogue

The recall was a referendum on Boudin, not criminal justice reform

“Boudin was happily tossed over the side by much of San Francisco’s Democratic political establishment — who regarded him as an embarrassing and not terribly competent outlier, not a national symbol of criminal-justice reform (as some have treated him).” — Ed Kilgore, New York

Communities most harmed by tough-on-crime policies still want to see change

“It is increasingly clear that a core source of support for reform prosecutors comes from poorer, Blacker communities that bear the brunt of both violence and punitiveness. … Reform prosecutors consistently win the voting precincts where violence is most concentrated. Notably, these communities are less vulnerable to fearmongering because violence for them is far less an abstraction and far more a lived experience.” — John Pfaff, Slate

Centrist Democrats are using crime as a wedge to knock down the left

“In many heavily Democratic cities, much of the new war on crime is really a war on the left. In a different era, overhyping crime and blaming progressives to win intraparty feuds could be considered harmless political infighting. But the effect of all this tough-on-crime posturing is weakening the much-needed movement to reform the police that emerged two years ago after the murder of George Floyd.” — Perry Bacon Jr., Washington Post

Voters are angry in general and will take it out on whoever happens to be in charge

“What matters to voters is generally outcomes, not policies — which means that when people are upset about crime, they’re likely to want to throw the bums out and try something different, which will have radically different results depending on which bums happen to be in office in that jurisdiction.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg

Reformers will fail if they force voters to choose between themselves and the police

“Crime-concerned voters don’t want the district attorney feuding with police; they want to see the district attorney working with police. That may be hard for vehement critics of the police to accept. … The plain fact is that Boudin went to war with the police in one of the most progressive cities in America, and the police won.” — Bill Scher, Washington Monthly

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