Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a City Journal contributing editor. He spoke with associate editor Daniel Kennelly.

You recently characterized San Francisco’s recall of DA Chesa Boudin as a repudiation of the progressive idea that nonviolent “quality-of-life” offenses are not the problem of the criminal justice system. Is the recall part of a broader national trend?

I’m not sure I would call it a “national trend,” insofar as there’s a lot of variation in how much quality of life is a problem in cities. But there are clearly major cities where it’s a rising concern and electoral backlash is possible. Over the past several decades, there’s been a concerted policy pushback against the idea of quality-of-life enforcement, which is often associated (somewhat haphazardly) with “Broken Windows” policing or “stop-and-frisk” or other terms used as pejoratives by criminal-justice progressives. The argument goes something like: using the criminal-justice system to manage public intoxication or camping or graffiti is disproportionate to the offense, so either we should delegate those functions entirely to nonpolice civil servants or just accept them as the price of living in a city.

In reality, law enforcement is always going to be part of an effective response to antisocial behavior, because people who engage in that behavior both are likely to end up interacting with the criminal-justice system—what our colleague Stephen Eide describes in his book as the safety net below the safety net—and because the sort of person who thinks it’s okay to pee on the street is not likely to go along with a social-services program voluntarily. When you take that element of coercion out, you make it harder for the rest of the system to do its job.

So it is unsurprising to me that cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York, which often spend vast sums of money on street outreach, homelessness services, drug treatment, and the like, still struggle with public disorder, because they are hostile to enforcement. But—and this is the lesson of the Boudin recall—voters care enormously about quality of life. In criminologist Wesley Skogan’s classic survey of police-community meetings, he finds that residents are primarily concerned not with violent or even property crime, but with disorder. Crime, particularly violent crime, is rare—your absolute risk of being victimized is quite low, particularly if you are not part of social networks routinely engaged in violence. Disorder, by contrast, is something everybody sees. In San Francisco, violence is actually not that bad by comparison with other major cities (mostly because the Bay Area’s real violence problem is in Oakland), but voters were still extremely frustrated because visible disorder was rampant.

You’ve lived in the Washington, D.C. region for many years. Do you see a similar political dynamic at play there?

Strictly speaking, I live in the D.C. suburbs, and don’t spend a huge amount of time in the city, though I did live there for just shy of three years between 2016 and 2019. But, yes, D.C. has a growing disorder problem. Unsheltered homelessness was up in January 2020 versus January 2015, when Mayor Muriel Bowser took office, and dozens of homeless encampments have emerged. The drug-overdose death rate was 60.6 per 100,000 in 2020—more than four times what it was a decade before. Dirt-bike racing, which happens frequently because the Metropolitan Police Department is prohibited from engaging in high-speed chases, is a regular public nuisance. Public disorder is, in my view, largely a choice by policymakers—something they agree to tolerate. In D.C., you see a fair amount of sorting, as people like me simply choose to move out to the Maryland or Virginia suburbs. But voting with the feet depletes the tax base, so it’s still something policymakers need to worry about.

You and Aaron Sibarium recently started a podcast called “Institutionalized.” What’s behind the name, and what is the show about?

There’s this tendency, on both sides of the aisle but particularly on the right, to think about the world purely in terms of ideas and emotions. College students compulsively cancel one another, for example, because they have been influenced by their professors’ wrongheaded ideas, or because they’re just irrational and weren’t taught how to think about themselves as people with agency. Aaron and I both view this kind of analysis as misguided. Why do people have wrong ideas? What is inducing them to behave irrationally? Our goal is to dig into those questions; to get our guests, and our listeners, to think about institutional and structural determinants; to go from the appearance of things to how things actually are.

Who has been your favorite guest on the show so far?

It’s actually one of our less popular episodes: political scientist David Skarbek. He is the author of several books: on how order is created in prisons, on prison gangs in the California prison system, and on prison order in the comparative international context. His argument, basically, is that order in prisons emerges out of rational structures of governance. Under his theory, for example, prison gangs exist because they provide governance—mediating disputes, guaranteeing property rights, and so on—where no formal structures exist to do so. So studying prisons actually tells us a great deal about how governance works, both in other low-formal-governance contexts and in general.

Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images


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