The 2022 midterm election cycle was the first real test of the police and criminal-justice “reform” movements’ political viability amid resurgent violent crime. The crime issue loomed larger than usual over some of the nation’s most heated political contests. Republicans took up the cause of those who were worried about public safety and open to a tougher approach to crime, while Democrats defended the recent leftward lurch on the criminal-justice policy front. The Democrats’ defensive strategy involved downplaying (if not outright denying) recent crime increases or dismissing any suggestion that such upticks in crime were related to depolicing efforts.
Whether this strategy worked is unclear. Democrats held off what many predicted would be a “red wave” election, but the GOP enjoyed a massive advantage among the 11 percent of voters who told exit pollsters that crime was the biggest issue. Absent any clear political price imposed on the party, at least judging by the midterm results, there remains in office a critical mass of Democrats unwilling to roll back the most misguided reforms passed to date, or to resist newer efforts to go even further.
In November, for example, the Democratic city council in Washington, D.C., voted to move forward with a plan to rewrite the city’s criminal code—all but doing away with mandatory minimum sentences, extending the right to a jury trial to misdemeanor cases, expanding the rights of convicts to petition judges for sentence reductions, and lowering the maximum penalties for various serious offenses such as burglary, robbery, and carjacking (on the rise for some time in the nation’s capital). While the proposed rewrite is not yet a done deal, the public should be disconcerted that things have gone this far.
Revamping the criminal code isn’t the only thing that the D.C. city council aims to do. The council just voted to pass a new package of policing bills that make permanent reforms passed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis—including a ban on police uses of neck restraints and restrictions on police use of tear gas. The package also includes new provisions that will require publication of police disciplinary records. Absent from the council’s agenda is addressing the city’s struggles with police hiring. The D.C. Metro Police Department’s Chief, Robert Contee, recently told Fox News that his force was down 300 officers since he took his post in 2021; and a spokesperson said that as of August 2021, the department had close to 500 fewer officers than the 4,000 positions budgeted. Nor does the D.C. city council seem keen to address rising crime, despite the city averaging more than 205 homicides a year since 2020—60 percent higher than what the city averaged (127.6) between 2010 and 2019.
In Illinois, residents saw part of a controversial law known as the Safe-T Act go into effect on January 1, 2023. A buzzer-beating legal challenge has delayed implementation of the most controversial provisions until the state’s supreme court rules on the matter. Those provisions would have eliminated cash bail in Illinois—home to some of the nation’s most dangerous neighborhoods, which have watched gun violence spike in recent years—and put new limits on judges’ ability to remand defendants to pretrial detention. The Safe-T Act’s other provisions survived the challenge, however. According to an analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute, the law also makes it easier to file complaints against police officers by letting them be made anonymously and removes the requirement that they be sworn statements; gives the state attorney general new oversight authority over the police regarding alleged civil rights violations; puts new restrictions on police uses of force; curtails what lawyers refer to as the “felony murder” rule, which allows homicide charges against defendants when deaths result from their commission of certain felonies; and loosens mandatory minimum sentences.
The Illinois law was set to take effect three years after the controversial bail reform in New York, where, in 2020, when that law took effect, the nation’s biggest city saw an approximately 25 percent jump in total and violent felony arrests of pretrial releasees. New York’s bail reform (which, like the Safe-T Act, passed alongside other reforms) was also followed by sharp rises in homicides and shootings, which rocketed by 47 percent and 97 percent, respectively, in 2020. Both measures increased again (albeit not nearly as much) in 2021; and so-called Part I crimes (murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto) spiked 25 percent through early December 2022 over the previous year—though murders were down 12 percent. In addition, the NYPD reported a 32 percent bump in transit crime, a 35 percent increase in petit larceny, and a 14 percent rise in misdemeanor assaults for 2022, again through early December. None of this seems to have given Illinois Democrats any pause. Nor does it seem to have inspired much introspection on the part of New York lawmakers, who, despite the deteriorating quality of life in the nation’s largest city, have resisted calls for change—including those coming from some of their Democratic colleagues, such as New York City mayor Eric Adams.
Another example of how left-leaning reformers are continuing their work to lower the transaction costs of crime comes from Oregon. In December 2022, Governor Kate Brown, who extended a preexisting moratorium on executions in the state when she took office, officially commuted the death sentences of every death-row inmate in the state to life without parole. Beneficiaries include those who have murdered other inmates and engaged in other violent acts while incarcerated.
The criminal-justice reform agenda is still largely driven by advocates far more radical than the average Democrat. Take a recent NBC News article co-penned by former defense-attorney-turned-social-media-personality Scott Hechinger and Dyjuan Tatro, a reform advocate who served prison time for, among other things, shooting two rival gang members. Per Hechinger and Tatro, bail reform in New York has proved a “success,” and New York City has “remained secure.” Not as secure as it might have been for the hundreds of additional homicide victims the city has seen over the last three years.
Notwithstanding New York’s dramatic leftward shift on criminal justice in recent years—which has included a sharp reduction in police stops, more than a dozen police-reform measures, and state-level changes to bail, discovery, parole, and juvenile justice—advocates still don’t sound satisfied.
In December, the New York City Council considered new legislation that would ban landlords from conducting criminal background checks on prospective tenants. That same month, New York University’s Policing Project relaunched its Reimagining Public Safety initiative, which seeks to shrink the policing footprint in the United States. Among the areas that the advocates at NYU want reimagined? Abuse and neglect, open-air drug dealing, traffic enforcement, proactive policing, “juvenile” harassment, fights, burglar alarms . . . and the list goes on. The initiative’s website offers no commentary about most of the areas identified as targets for future action or analysis. Where explanation is offered, however—noise complaints, traffic accidents, and welfare checks—the focus appears to be on taking police out of the equation, wherever possible.
The Left’s defenses of recent reforms, as well as proposals for even greater leniency in the criminal-justice system, have been advanced even as many jurisdictions across the country have faced record (or near-record) levels of violent crime in recent years. More than two dozen cities have broken all-time homicide records since 2020, while others have watched murder numbers climb to levels unseen since the mid-1990s. And progressives have insisted for years that their wins were fragile and would vanish at the first sign of trouble on the crime front. Many advocates pointed to last year’s recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin as evidence of their movement’s precarious position, citing his demise as part of a broader backlash.
If there was a backlash, though, it was short-lived. The successful recall effort in San Francisco now seems more of an outlier. Los Angeles’s radical D.A., George Gascón, survived a similar recall drive, as did California governor Gavin Newsom. In 2021, Philadelphia’s progressive prosecutor, Larry Krasner, sailed to reelection, as did his Chicago counterpart Kim Foxx. And in November 2022, a number of similarly leftist prosecutors emerged victorious in races across the country: in Dallas, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, and Polk County, Iowa (home to Des Moines).
The seeming nonchalance and lack of urgency to restore order among so many left-leaning policymakers, advocates, and voters is surprising, given that the burden of the current crime spike has fallen disproportionately on those whom the reformers say they’re fighting for: those living in low-income, minority communities.
A study published in the November 2022 issue of the JAMA Network showed marked disparities in firearm homicides, with black males victimized at a rate last reached in the mid-1990s—a rate that (at almost 60 per 100,000) is close to ten times higher than that of white males. In New York City, 97 percent of shooting victims were either black or Hispanic in 2021; yet those minority groups constituted only slightly more than half of the city’s estimated 2021 population. One would think that disparities of this magnitude would concern a party that brands itself a defender of “equity.”
So, what does this all mean?
In the short run, American cities can probably expect a few more years of declining quality of life—particularly in places that can least afford further setbacks. In the early 1990s, when the country seemed to resign itself to rampant crime and disorder as just part of urban life, it took New York City to demonstrate that change was not only necessary, but possible. The city declared—through a fed-up citizenry, a tough-on-crime mayor, and a legendary police commissioner—that it was going to restore order. What followed was a nearly three-decade period of crime declines and urban flourishing.
New York is apparently not yet ready (or willing) to lead the way in this new fight against an old foe. If New York, or New Yorkers, won’t, then someone else must. Who will it be?
Photo: Aftermath of a shooting, New York City (STEVE SANCHEZ/SIPA USAAP PHOTO)