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Precision Prosecution

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Precision Prosecution

Some law-enforcement officials remember how to make cities safe. June 22, 2022
Public safety
Cities
Politics and law

Chesa Boudin has been recalled after a disastrous stint as San Francisco district attorney, and whoever replaces him should take lessons from cities that have resisted the progressive prosecutor trend. Law enforcement officials in Atlanta, Dallas, and Jacksonville are rediscovering a tactic that history and research vindicate: precision prosecution.

In Jacksonville, Florida’s biggest city, state’s attorney Melissa Nelson and local police have focused their efforts on arresting known violent criminals, especially gang members. They emphasize prosecution of repeat offenders and gun crimes. The straightforward goal is to identify and incapacitate violent offenders with stiff prison sentences, and the results have been encouraging. As Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia—all led by progressive prosecutors—saw sustained increases in violent crime last year, Jacksonville’s homicides declined by 30 percent, while shootings were down by 17 percent.

In Atlanta, the district attorney, police, and mayor announced the formation of a Repeat Offender Tracking Unit to share information and lock up criminals with multiple prior felony convictions. Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens pointed out that a relatively small number of criminals—an estimated 1,000 repeat offenders who live “a life of crime”—are responsible for 40 percent of Atlanta’s violent crimes. District Attorney Fani Willis made it clear that she is no fan of the soft-on-crime policies of some other cities, saying that Atlanta is “specifically targeting repeat offenders from the time of arrest.” Such career criminals, she said, would be given a “scarlet letter” so that their prison sentences would reflect their danger to the community. Homicides were up in Atlanta in 2021, but the new unit—announced in March of this year—may help turn things around. It will take time to undo the damage resulting from the soft-on-crime policies of former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was rewarded for her ineptitude with a position in the Biden administration.

Deep in the heart of Texas, the Dallas Police Department teamed up with academics to release the Dallas Violent Crime Reduction Plan last year. The plan focuses on crime hot spots and “offender-focused policing,” proactively targeting repeat offenders and locations where crime is likely to occur. In the experience of the Dallas PD, a relatively few offenders and locations produce a large proportion of violent crime; if law enforcement concentrates on those offenders, violent crime can be substantially reduced. Dallas district attorney John Creuzot supports the strategy. In 2021, homicides in Dallas declined by 13 percent and overall violent crime fell by almost 9 percent.

These programs rely on simple facts learned during the great crime decline of the late 1990s and early 2000s. First, a large proportion of violent crime in any city is generated by a relatively few criminals, locations, and times. If police and prosecutors focus on just 5 percent of the offenders and locations in a city, and beef up police presence during hot weekend nights, law enforcement can knock out a substantial proportion of violent crime. Second, these programs can succeed only if the police and prosecutors are working together. It won’t do any good for the police to arrest that most dangerous 5 percent of offenders if prosecutors are then letting dangerous criminals out of jail before trial or seeking weak sentences. Precision prosecution requires coordination and cooperation. And, as the Dallas Violent Crime Reduction Plan notes, precision prosecution avoids the possibility of over-incarceration by targeting the worst offenders who generate the most crime.

In law enforcement, there are no new ideas—just good ideas that sometimes get forgotten. Focusing prosecutions precisely on the relatively small cohort of offenders who are responsible for an overwhelming amount of violent crime makes sense from a tactical and economic perspective. Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Dallas are reminding other cities that these strategies worked before and can work again.

Photo by GIANRIGO MARLETTA/AFP via Getty Images

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