Crime spike threatens to politically squash prosecutors’ efforts to reform
An OpEd: State prosecutors focused on progress face tough on crime narratives that threaten their reelection
Criminal justice reform dominated the national discussion the past few years. In May 2020, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, the criminal justice reform movement gained national attention. Floyd’s murder was another example of wrongful killings of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police. His death was an awakening for White America, but it was a reality Black Americans have experienced for decades. His murder highlighted how race impacts how a person is treated by the justice system from arrest to sentencing.
After his death, there was an urgency for change but most importantly a need for it. Floyd’s murder was a catalyst which gave even more life to not only police reform but also prosecutor reform.
Much is at stake for the midterm elections on Nov. 8. Local elections will have a tremendous impact our civil rights. There will be an election or reelection of congress, governors, attorneys general, secretary of states, state supreme court judges but also prosecutors. Opponents to criminal justice reform have been attacking prosecutors by faulting them for the rise in crime.
To accelerate criminal justice reform, we must continue to elect reform prosecutors, and they must demonstrate their commitment to public safety and the benefits of their policies. And to survive this political climate, they must be armed with data and a strong narrative to refute the opposition’s arguments.
The prosecutor reform movement emerged roughly in 2016 with a wave of national wins. People were exhausted with prior decades of “law and order” policies that accelerated mass incarceration. The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate of 5 to 6 times more than other countries, and the reincarceration rate is approximately 50%. The cost to keep about 2.3 million people imprisoned is more than $81 billion each year. Communities began to look at every angle for a new approach, and many saw the movement as an answer.
The movement is a new way of thinking. The mission was to elect progressive state prosecutors dedicated to safety and interested in reducing mass incarceration. These prosecutors supported alternatives: drug and mental health treatment courts, community service, and restorative justice for certain nonviolent low-level offenses. Its initial success was reflected in votes for reform-minded district attorneys specifically in large such as Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Arguably, the movement started years prior with the writings of thought leader Professor Angela J. Davis from American University’s Washington College of Law. She recognized that effective reform must start and be led by prosecutors. They decide whether to charge or to dismiss a case and are therefore the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system.
In recent years, on the federal level, the movement included changes enacted by the Obama administration. Federal prosecutors started adopting “Smart on Crime” policies designed to reject traditional “Tough on Crime” approaches that led to overly aggressive prosecution practices. Much of the reform has continued at the state level with voters electing reform candidates.
But the movement has struggled. Some have stayed in office, but their reform efforts have been stymied by ferocious opposition. The attacks on newly elected Black female prosecutors in large cities are particularly vicious.
The blows have been bipartisan. Elected prosecutors voted-in by constituents in arguably liberal-leaning cities have not been reelected. And some conservative governors, state attorney generals, police, and judges have aggressively opposed them, even though the voters elected them to implement change.
The primary opposition slogan is that reform prosecutors are “soft on crime” and do not believe in holding offenders accountable. Some prosecutors have lost elections or been recalled due to a perceived spike in crime.
In June of 2022, San Francisco prosecutor Chesa Boudin was recalled because he could not address his community’s concerns that crime was uncontrollable and surging. He was dubbed a soft-on-crime prosecutor who didn’t care about his constituent’s safety. In Los Angeles, newly elected District Attorney George Gascon struggled to stay in office after multiple attempts to oust him.
In other major cities, opposition to reform within the justice system has been ferocious. In New York County, D.A. Alvin Bragg Jr. faced widespread condemnation from police and conservative news outlets after he released new reform policies his voters placed him in office to execute. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended an elected district attorney, Andrew Warren, because he alleged that he was neglecting his duty to enforce the law. But Warren merely signed letters opposing state laws seeking to criminalize transgender people and abortion.
Reform prosecutors must combat these attacks by telling their story better. They need to highlight examples of the movement’s dedication to fight crime and its benefits. Campaigns need to be armed with the truth – the actual data on crime rates.
If we look at murder and violent crime statistics from 1990 to 2020, it tells a story that conflicts with the false narrative: “reform is soft on crime.” According to the FBI, murder and violent crime have declined since the 1990s. The rates lowered dramatically from 1990 until the 2000s. From 2000 to 2020, violent crime remained low and stagnated.
According to the American Bar Association, a study by several research universities in 35 jurisdictions, showed there were no significant effects of how a prosecutor’s policies play a role in the rise of local crime rates.
To combat the erroneous “surging crime” propaganda, the prosecutor needs to address the public’s true perception of crime and the reality of actual crime rates. They should use national and local crime statistics to tell the true narrative to their constituents about safety and transparency about whether their reform efforts have led to a reduction in crime and recidivism.
Reform prosecutors should convene and create a unanimous national messaging strategy by working with national nonprofits, policy organizations, think tanks and local district attorney associations to create a communication information hub. Elected prosecutors could use the hub to address the misleading narrative of opposition actors.
Inside their offices, district attorneys should consider hiring and creating communication divisions. Hiring a communication director and a social media director is vital. Their PR teams should implement an ongoing communication strategy – social media, interviews, videos, data dashboards and community meetings about public safety, reform and racial justice.
For instance, if shoplifting is of critical concern, the office could provide regular social media progress reports like 2-minute Instagram reels or podcasts. It would be a consistent, potent public relations campaign focusing on data, progress, and outreach with community groups. This would inform and garner support for the movement as it grows.
What’s at stake if the reform district attorneys fail to reshape their narrative?
And we CANNOT afford to go back.
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