Under liberal prosecutors, crime makes more progress than reform
Residents are pushing back against light-on-crime policies
At least a dozen district attorneys across the country won election by promising not to prosecute low-level crimes. But in some cities, their methods have backfired. Just ask Chesa Boudin.
Boudin, the district attorney of San Francisco, is on his way out of office after he lost a recall election held June 7. The next day, Illinois state Rep. Tim Butler issued a warning to the liberal state’s attorney in Chicago, Kim Foxx.
“The people of San Francisco sent a clear message this week that progressive prosecutors like Kim Foxx should pay attention to; soft-on-crime policies have created a crisis of confidence in our judicial system that the public won’t ignore,” said Butler, a Republican from Springfield, Ill.
Prosecutors like Boudin and Foxx are struggling against mounting backlash as violent crime rises in major cities. Their critics say that by abusing their prosecutorial discretion, they are hurting the communities they intend to help.
Many liberal prosecutors have announced their intentions to stop prosecuting “quality of life crimes” that cause less direct harm to others—misdemeanors like drug possession, prostitution, and in some cases possession with intent to distribute and petty theft (typically below the value of $500 or $1,000). Others will initiate prosecution but don’t seek bail and treat incarceration as a last resort.
In Los Angeles, District Attorney George Gascon declared an end to the use of sentencing enhancements (using details like the defendant’s criminal history or the circumstances of the crime to demand longer prison sentences). District Attorney Alvin Bragg of New York County released a list of misdemeanors he would decline to prosecute that included marijuana crimes, trespassing, driving with a suspended license, prostitution, and or resisting arrest for noncriminal offenses or violations. More than 80 liberal prosecutors in states with pro-life laws have promised not to prosecute people for obtaining or assisting with abortions.
As the district attorney for Boston’s Suffolk County, Rachael Rollins pledged to decline to prosecute shoplifting, larceny of items worth less than $250, disorderly conduct, drug possession with intent to distribute, and breaking and entering a vacant property for the purpose of sleeping or escaping the cold. Last July, President Joe Biden appointed Rollins as the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.
Prosecutors have always used prosecutorial discretion, or the authority to look at the evidence and specific circumstances of a case and decide whether to bring charges, reduce charges, or offer a plea bargain. But Zack Smith, a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, argued that liberal prosecutors are taking that discretion too far by refusing to enforce whole categories of laws that the state legislature duly enacted.
“They’re saying, ‘I disagree with these laws on policy grounds. I think they’re bad ideas. So I’m going to, essentially, usurp the role of the legislature, and just decline to prosecute it,’” said Smith.
If left unpunished, quality of life crimes wreak havoc in communities, he said. Last June, security cameras captured a thief filling a garbage bag with items at a San Francisco Walgreens. He cycled nonchalantly out of the store on a stolen bike. Three other onlookers videoed the man with their cell phones.
It wasn’t an isolated incident. The city’s spike in “smash and grab” robberies and rampant shoplifting compelled several Walgreens locations to close. Five Target locations cut their operating hours to protect merchandise and employees. The stores now close at 6 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. That hurts low-income families who rely on public transportation or extended hours to shop.
Refusing to prosecute less serious crimes leads to an increase in more serious crimes, Smith said. In Philadelphia, prosecutor Larry Krasner has presided over a skyrocketing homicide rate, and carjackings are on track to exceed last year’s totals. The Philadelphia Police Department is preparing for even more violence this summer.
Minority communities bear the brunt of an increase in violent crime, said Smith. In Philadelphia and other major cities, shooting victims are disproportionately black and Latino.
Former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter blasted Krasner’s policies in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer as “advancing his own national profile as a progressive district attorney” with “little regard for human lives lost, many of them black and brown.”
Former Maricopa County, Ariz., Deputy Attorney Kurt Altman agreed. Altman is the Arizona director for Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform initiative.
“True reformers want to strengthen the rule of law, but at the same time, find ways … to reduce the prison populations with alternatives while keeping the community safe and respecting the rule of law,” he said.
He predicted that as low-level crime rates rise in communities, voters will push back.
“That’s not what the public wants. They want to live in a safe community,” Altman added.
Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania have begun impeachment proceedings against Krasner.
“We are starting this process now because the unchecked violent crime in Philadelphia has reached a breaking point due to the willful refusal by District Attorney Krasner to enforce existing laws,” Republican state Rep. Josh Kail said in a statement.
In Los Angeles, District Attorney Gascon may face a recall election this fall. As of May 19, organizers had gathered 425,000 of the 566,000 signatures that they needed by July 6 to put his recall on the ballot.
“Crime makes everyone more moderate,” San Francisco hardware store owner Albert Chow told The Wall Street Journal after voters recalled Boudin. The rise in home and business burglaries has disrupted his once quiet neighborhood.
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