The Failure of Progressive Criminal-Justice Reforms

The Failure of Progressive Criminal-Justice Reforms

For the last decade, radical prosecutors and progressive politicians have been proposing and enacting illogical criminal-justice policies, often with little consideration for the real-world effects of these ideas. Enough time has passed for an evidence-based assessment of how these policies have played out in the real world.

Gun Buybacks: Politicians in big cities believe that gun-buyback programs will reduce the violent crime that is spiking in America’s urban centers. But comprehensive research shows no evidence that such programs work. Philadelphia just completed a three-year gun-buyback program that yielded over 1,000 firearms. Not a single recovered firearm was linked to violent crime and, during the course of the program, Philadelphia set new all-time records for homicides. “It’s not reaching the area of the community that’s possessing illegal guns and using them,” says criminologist Joseph Giacalone. “It’s political theater.”

“Violence Interrupters”: Progressive prosecutors tout violence interrupters—former gang members and convicts who mediate disputes on the streets—as a serious weapon against crime. Cities led by “reform” prosecutors, such as Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia have staked a lot on this idea. The results have not been encouraging. Multiple violence interrupters have been murdered in Baltimore. In Indianapolis, the former convict in charge of training violence interrupters was arrested for threatening a woman and had to be fired. In Philadelphia, a violence interrupter shot three people in a bar while he was working his anti-violence job. And a recent research paper states that violence interrupters, despite their tough histories, are suffering from severe trauma, mainly because they are being exposed to the type of violence that police officers face every day (imagine that). The real question for violence-interruption programs is whether they might be adding fuel to the fire of violent crime.

Decarceration: Liberal policy groups like the Prison Policy Initiative, with the support of legal academics, have railed against “mass incarceration” in the United States for decades, asserting that the United States could free thousands of prisoners, even violent criminals, without affecting public safety. For their argument to make any sense, they have to push for the release of violent criminals because—as even leading decarceration advocate John Pfaff concedes—the vast majority of criminals are incarcerated for violent crimes. The decarceration advocates largely have seen their wishes granted. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2019, incarceration rates in America had fallen to the same level as 1995, then were reduced even further during the Covid-19 pandemic. How is that working out? The United States saw its biggest single-year rise in homicide in 2020, and the murder rates continued to rise in 2021. Homicides in many cities reached levels unseen since the 1990s, when incarceration rates were as low as they are now. The incarceration-versus-violent-crime relationship is statistically complex, but the wholesale release of violent criminals serves as one more contributor to increasing murders in American cities.

No Cash Bail: Fair and Just Prosecution, a think tank for radical prosecutors, has long championed a “no cash bail” policy, claiming that detaining people pretrial is simply a way of locking up the poor. In 2020, New York passed legislation substantially reducing the state’s ability to keep even violent criminals detained after they were arrested. The resulting spike in violent crimes by defendants released back to the streets led even Democratic New York governor Kathy Hochul to roll back this misguided reform in 2022, much to the relief of police and citizens. It turns out that detaining violent criminals between arrest and trial is vital for public safety. Who knew?

De-Prosecution: From Alvin Bragg in Manhattan to George Gascón in Los Angeles to Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, the progressive-prosecutor playbook relies on a policy of de-prosecution, the decision not to prosecute crimes even when the facts and evidence are sufficient to convict defendants. Prosecutors’ decision effectively to nullify criminal laws passed by state legislatures has had a disastrous effect on violent crime in big cities. A recent study using a synthetic control algorithm attributes an extra 74 homicides per year to the de-prosecution policy in Philadelphia, where prosecutions have dropped by a staggering 70 percent for both felonies and misdemeanors. The same methodology estimated an additional 70 homicides per year in Baltimore and 169 more homicides per year in Chicago, two other cities with de-prosecuting prosecutors. Electing prosecutors not to enforce the law was as crazy as it sounded.

Defund the Police: From the members of “The Squad” in Congress to city councils across the United States, a powerful political movement has emerged to defund police, based on the belief that law enforcement does more harm than good. Seattle tested this theory in 2020, when it declared a section of the city a “police-free zone” after protests related to the death of George Floyd. A sophisticated analysis by professors Eric Piza and Nathan Connealy determined that the lack of police led not only to an increase in violent crime in the police-free zone—an unsurprising result—but also to a spillover effect of crime in surrounding areas of Seattle. On a broader level, highly respected researchers Aaron Chalfin and Justin McCrary did a quantitative analysis demonstrating that, if anything, American cities are under-policed, and that adding more police would result in both net savings and reduced violent crime, especially murder. In raw statistical terms, adding ten police officers to a department prevents one homicide per year in that jurisdiction. A strong case can be made, in fact, that we are under-policed: the U.S. ranks in the bottom half of developed nations for the number of police officers per capita. Fortunately, the defund movement appears to be in retreat, as city residents see the dreadful results and politicians scramble to adjust.

A curious but notable trend is developing in the study of crime. Law school professors long have been the leading advocates for many of these progressive policies, but these legal academics have little practical experience and are not bound by any actual data, acting instead as an elite class of professional philosophers. However, a cohort of quantitative researchers is starting to look at the actual crime data and publish the results, which often reveal that these policies not only don’t work but also actively harm communities, particularly those with the poorest residents.

As each of these policies meets its predictable demise, some might ask: What does work, then? The answers to that question have been demonstrated clearly and exhaustively: re-empower the police to protect law-abiding citizens. Arrest violent offenders, prosecute them vigorously, and incapacitate them with stiff sentences. And elect prosecutors who uphold and enforce the law, and who prioritize protecting law-abiding citizens, not violent criminals.

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi used to start training camp every year by stressing the importance of fundamentals. He’d hold up a pigskin and say, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” It’s time for the criminal-justice system to get back to the basics of blocking and tackling.

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