Mayors and city councils are increasingly exasperated with “progressive prosecutors,” but they have little leverage to control them. It may be time to exercise a traditional check on underperforming public agencies: the power of the purse.
Displeasure with progressive prosecutors has been simmering for a while but is starting to boil over. San Francisco mayor London Breed, seeing the chaos unleashed by District Attorney Chesa Boudin, recently said, “It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it come to an end.” Philadelphia’s city council president and mayor took turns bashing the lack of leadership and cooperation from District Attorney Larry Krasner, even as the city set a new record for homicides. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot traded barbs with Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx over Foxx’s decision not to charge violent criminals, in a year when Chicago topped 800 homicides.
But very few tools exist to stop a rogue prosecutor. A prosecutor seeking convictions must get through an arrest, preliminary hearing, pre-trial motions, trial, and appeals. A prosecutor who doesn’t want to prosecute criminals can simply announce that he or she is not prosecuting. The criminals will then walk free; there is no oversight and no appeal. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the United States saw a tremendous surge in violent crime, legislators and prosecutors worked together to figure out solutions. Today, certain prosecutors seem intent on fueling the violence rather than trying to stop it.
How, then, can these radical prosecutors be curbed? Voters may eventually catch on and send them packing, of course, though both Foxx and Krasner were recently reelected handily in low-turnout elections. But officials could also cut funding. Local prosecutors’ offices, like other agencies, get funded from municipal and state coffers. The progressive prosecutor movement has made much about arresting less, prosecuting less, incarcerating less: in short, doing less work than traditional prosecutors. District attorneys’ offices can accordingly see their budgets adjusted to reflect that diminished role. Progressive candidates in the Manhattan district attorney’s race explicitly promised to cut the size of the office in half because the office would be doing less prosecuting under their leadership. If Chesa Boudin is only prosecuting or convicting half as many people in San Francisco, then shouldn’t his budget be cut by half? The remaining funds could be repurposed to provide other city services.
Even some progressive prosecutors would balk at the prospect of fewer resources. Boudin is requesting that his budget rise from $73 million in 2020–21 to $76 million in 2021–22 and $78 million in 2022–23. Then again, he wants that money not for prosecutions but to hire social workers—what he calls “credible messengers” to the community.
Budget cuts would provide an element of poetic justice, but it is wiser to think of it simply as economic hygiene for cash-strapped cities. December and January are budget seasons for big cities. The budgets must be proposed in 2021, then approved in 2022. Now is the perfect time for elected leaders—already disturbed by the policies of radical prosecutors and the resulting violence in their cities—to instill a little fiscal discipline in these prosecutors’ offices. Civilians gunned down in the streets do not seem to catch their attention. Maybe a shrinking budget will.