by Edward Ring
The advocacy group “Fair and Just Prosecution” says the goal of progressive criminal justice reform is to create “a justice system grounded in fairness, equity, compassion, and fiscal responsibility.” Starting around 2016, this movement picked up momentum across the United States, primarily by funding candidates in county district attorney elections. There are now dozens of cities and counties with elected district attorneys that are enforcing massive shifts in prosecutorial conduct.
Reforms were needed. But so far, they have been a disaster.
While the most visible source of funding for these district attorney candidates is the notorious George Soros, the movement is much bigger than the agenda of one billionaire. It taps a core belief of progressives, that America’s criminal justice system is punitive and disproportionately targets nonwhite and low-income communities. It also taps into a sentiment shared by progressives and libertarians, that “victimless” crimes, primarily drug related, should not be crimes at all.
It would be a mistake to assume that no legitimate motivations inform these progressive district attorneys and their donors. Along with the careerism, hatred for American institutions, desire to wreak havoc on our society, and even well-intentioned but hideously misapplied desire for social justice, there are problems that need to be fixed and ideas that ought to be tried. But so far, in every city and county where progressive district attorneys have taken office, crime is rising, with entire neighborhoods awash in filth, chaos, and lawlessness.
Places where progressive district attorneys are now elected and in office include the major cities of St. Louis, Chicago, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Austin, as well as Columbus, Ohio; Aurora, Colorado; and Michigan’s Oakland County, a suburb of Detroit. But California, naturally, is where the progressive prosecutors have achieved the most reach.
Four major counties in California now have progressive prosecutors, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has a resume that suggests radical “reforms” are in his DNA. This headline, posted by NBC News when he was elected in December 2019, says it all: “Parents guilty of murder and raised by radicals, Chesa Boudin is San Francisco’s next district attorney.”
Boudin has lived up to his stereotypes, to the point where even San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, who ordinarily would be considered radical herself, has become disillusioned. Quoting from an article published by the San Francisco Chronicle in early 2021, “Breed said—without naming anyone—that the criminal justice system could have prevented the death by holding McAlister accountable for his crimes.”
Breed was referring to Troy McAlister, who
allegedly ran a stoplight in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood in a stolen car, striking and killing two pedestrians. Police say McAlister had a gun, and methamphetamine and alcohol in his system. McAlister had a lengthy rap sheet dating back years and was released from prison after completing a sentence for robbery in April. Since then, he had been arrested several times, including as recently as December 20, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, but his arrests were referred to his parole officer, and he was not charged.
This is “restorative justice” at work. Breed went on to say “the criminal justice system in our city has failed.”
If San Francisco has acquired infamy in recent years for ungovernable, crime-ridden neighborhoods, a homeless invasion, thousands of heroin addicts, and an app—cleverly named “Snapcrap” that tracks the incidences of human feces on city sidewalks, its counterpart in Southern California boasts all these same dismal attributes, but on a much larger scale. Los Angeles County hosts the largest unified trial court system in America, and their newly elected district attorney, George Gascón, is working from the same progressive playbook.
“Within weeks of taking office,” Politico reports, “Gascón instructed prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty and trying juveniles as adults. He ordered a halt to most cash bail requests and banned prosecutors from appearing at parole hearings. Most controversially, he barred prosecutors from seeking various sentencing enhancements.”
What on earth did Gascón think would happen? Even before progressive district attorneys were elected in some of California’s biggest counties, it was almost impossible to police the state effectively. The turning point in California’s progressive assault on law enforcement was the passage in 2014 of Proposition 47. Supported by nearly all Democratic politicians, a smattering of libertarians, the ACLU, and several unions including AFSCME and SEIU California, this ballot initiative was misleadingly marketed as the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.”
Ostensibly to empty the jails of expensively housed “nonviolent” offenders, unintended consequences were felt immediately. Five years later, the negative consequences of Prop. 47 continue to compound and intensify. Prop. 47 freed tens of thousands of felons from state prisons and county jails back into communities. It reduced the penalty for possession of most illegal drugs including heroin and methamphetamine to a misdemeanor, and it also reduced to misdemeanor any crime where the value of property stolen doesn’t exceed $950—even for multiple offenses.
George Gascón, with plenty of help from hapless Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, now presides over a county that plays host to the largest homeless population in America, over 60,000 people. These permanent homeless encampments, an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, are havens for criminal activity.
And small wonder. Vagrancy, petty theft, and hard drug use are decriminalized, and now Gascón’s office is preventing effective prosecution of more serious crimes. Crime rates are soaring in Los Angeles County just as they are everywhere that progressive district attorneys have been elected.
Recalls Seek to Stop the Spread
Resistance is forming, however.
The Los Angeles Times reports several of Gascón’s“reforms” have been blocked by an L.A. County judge. In particular, the judge ruled that Gascón cannot stop prosecutors from using sentencing enhancements. The lawsuit by the union representing L.A. prosecutors argues that Gascón’s efforts violate state law and, among other things, endanger public safety by making it harder to keep gang members off the streets. Now police officers are joining the rebellion, led by L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Perhaps inspired by the unprecedented success of the recall campaign against Gavin Newsom, a nearly all-volunteer effort that collected more than 2 signatures to force California’s governor to fight for his political life in a special election later this year, earlier this month in Los Angeles, Villanueva’s Recall George Gascón committee filed a notice of intent to collect recall signatures. If the petition is approved for circulation by the L.A. County Clerk’s office, supporters will have 160 days to gather 590,000 signatures to get a George Gascón recall on the ballot.
In California these days, recalls are contagious. In San Francisco, the Recall Chesa Boudin campaign filed notice of intent to recall on February 8, and the San Francisco Department of Elections approved petitions for circulation on March 4. The campaign has until August 11 to collect and submit 51,325 valid signatures.
Effective Criminal Justice Reform and Results
Criminal justice reform can put an end to overreliance on often coerced plea bargains and punitive incarceration. But reform doesn’t have to condemn our cities to lawlessness. As balance is restored and the electorate becomes more aware of the issues, genuine progress is possible.
The injustice of harsh sentencing has to be weighed against its overall value in deterring crime. The staggering expense of incarceration, or, for that matter, the staggering expense of homeless shelters in cities riddled with corruption, has to be confronted and corrected. Not every jail must be a supermax. Not every homeless shelter has to cost $100,000 (or more) per bed. The liberty of individuals to consume drugs has to be balanced against the rights of the people who live in the neighborhoods they’ve taken over.
If George Soros and the progressive movement he represents have done one good thing, it’s that they’ve removed district attorney elections from the backwoods of political theater. These elections, which Soros and a handful of other major donors were able to quietly dominate for the last few years, picking off city after city, are no longer obscure. District attorney candidates, and the philosophy they intend to bring to office, are finally getting the scrutiny they deserve.
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Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness and co-founder in 2013 of the California Policy Center.