Reform DAs—tired or wired? A debate with Nancy Rommelmann
Journalist and author Nancy Rommelmann and I are going to exchange a series of letters on the topic of the reform DA movement. Please take a look at Nancy’s post that inspired the discussion. “The Impeachment of Larry Krasner and the Sunsetting of the Progressive Prosecutor.”
I am so excited to have this discussion with you. We disagree about reform DAs but I respect your stance and your work (and your style!). Usually, I’m squabbling with Manhattan Institute types on Twitter until they block me and then their followers are like, "Tana is pure EVIL” and “Tana looks like a giraffe.” I expect our discussion to be a bit more substantive and productive.
Anyway, I read with great interest your post, “The Impeachment of Larry Krasner and the Sunsetting of the Progressive Prosecutor.”
In the post, you say that the impeachment of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner shows that the public is tired of reform DAs. That after the riots and the spike in homicides during the pandemic and public disorder in blue cities, we are seeing, as you say, the “sunsetting of the Progressive prosecutor.”
But there’s been a sunrising too. We’ve got a reform DA, Steve Mulroy, in Memphis. He knocked out one of the most right-wing prosecutors in America in a landslide this August—in a deep red state.
And here’s a breakdown of how reform DAs fared in the midterms:
Reform-minded prosecutors in Dallas and San Antonio fended off law-and-order challengers. Indianapolis stood by its lead prosecutor, who vowed not to charge doctors providing abortions in spite of a state ban, even with strong opposition from the local police union and an opponent who tried to blame him for a “public safety crisis.” In Oklahoma City, the former executive director of the state’s Innocence Project will be its new district attorney. (Bolts has a complete rundown of local races, along with criminal justice initiatives, from across the country.)
In the first election for county attorney since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, voters in Minneapolis elected former chief public defender Mary Moriarty. The Democrat fought off a Republican prosecutor who talked tough and earned the support of law enforcement groups. Moriarty, in contrast, campaigned on fostering trust within communities by forming a police accountability division and pursuing alternatives to incarceration for some crimes. The idea that long prison sentences deter people from committing crimes, she told MinnPost, doesn’t “do a heck of a whole lot.”
I agree with you that mistakes were made by some progressive DAs over the course of the movement. We know now that if you alienate the cops, you’re fucked. The SF Chronicle has reported that police abruptly increased their number of traffic and other stops once Boudin’s successor Brooke Jenkins came into office, suggesting a retaliatory slowdown during his tenure. And it’s easy for Democratic lawmakers, like SF Mayor London Breed, to throw reform DAs under the bus to evade their responsibility in the homelessness and addiction crises. Which is all to say, reform DAs have to be extremely savvy politicians. It’s a politician’s job to sell their vision. Boudin seemed to think the data would speak for itself. But data never override emotions. In this communications vacuum right-wing forces shaped the narrative that Boudin’s policies had let to disorder and crime, even though violent crime dropped during his time in office.
After Boudin’s recall everyone looked to Larry Krasner as perhaps the next casualty of public perceptions about rising crime. But Krasner was easily reelected just one year ago:
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has won reelection in a contest that tested his progressive, anti-mass-incarceration approach amid the city’s rise in deadly gun violence.
Although ballots were still being tabulated, Krasner, 60, officially declared victory over Republican A. Charles Peruto with about half of the results in and a roughly 40 point lead.
In your post, you depict Krasner’s impeachment, like Boudin’s recall, as a sign that the public has had enough of the progressive experiment. But the impeachment is a state Republican hissy fit and if it succeeds, it will be a gross government overreach against a democratically elected official. He beat his Republican opponent with a 40 point lead!
As for Krasner and Boudin’s record you write:
Krasner's demotion told me Philadelphians were no longer up for workarounds; that they had become impatient with things getting worse before they possibly got better. The murder rate, for instance, was alarming: when Krasner was elected in 2018, Philly clocked 351 homicides; the 2022 number stands at 464. Boudin saw a rise from 41 when he took office in 2019, to 56 in 2021 (the last year he served a full term). Schmidt saw the largest percentage rise, from 55 when he was elected in 2020, to 84 so far this year.
Krasner was elected in 2017. After his first year in office, murders slightly went up to 351. The next year they fell to 265. And the year after that they fell to 201. That’s a 42.7% drop in homicides during the majority of his tenure. The spike you cite—464 in 2022, after 455 in 2012, occurred in nearly every jurisdiction in America.
It’s true that after a huge increase in homicides in 2021 everywhere, there was a drop in New York City, but not in Philly. But given that Krasner is not doing anything profoundly different this year than his first three, wouldn’t the difference between New York and Pennsylvania have more to do with the big gun supply is in the red state? If it’s easy to own legal guns there will be more guns and inevitably more will fall into the black market. I wonder state Republicans impeaching Krasner think about that.
Now take a look at the blue line. That’s the homicide clearance rate in Philadelphia. Only 125 out of 455 homicides were cleared in 2021, roughly a quarter. A case isn’t “cleared” once the guilty party has been tried by the district attorney and sentenced. It’s cleared when officers make an arrest. There’s nothing much Krasner can do about all those killers running around because cops can’t, or won’t, get their shit together to solve crimes.
I’m not sure where you’re getting the Boudin numbers. The FBI-UCR data ends at 2020 for San Francisco. But an increase of 8 homicides in the year of the pandemic? Compared to virtually every other place that’s a very small increase that suggests in a normal year homicides might have dropped in San Francisco.
And the jump is still lower than homicide numbers from 2015 to 2018. In other words, whatever Boudin was doing did not lead to an unprecedented crime spike in the city.
Neighboring Sacramento, whose DA is old school “tough” saw a slightly larger percent increase in homicides from 34 to 42 in the year of the pandemic. And if you look at all violent crime, it decreased under Boudin’s tenure, and increased–by a lot—in Sacramento.
In Sacramento it went up.
Anyway, here I go with 900 charts after jabbing Boudin for data over emotion.
Here’s some emotion. I don’t know much about Portland’s DA, but I got drunk at a conference and yelled at him about the awful Abrahams case. I yelled at him for throwing the bail fund under the bus. As you note in your post, the story is heartbreaking: after multiple arrests for severe physical abuse, Rachel Abrahams’ former husband was bailed out by the Portland Freedom Fund. He broke into her home and strangled her to death.
The bail fund made a catastrophic mistake. But you know they didn’t bail him out because they think domestic violence is cool. They bailed him out because there wasn’t adequate communication between the bail fund and the DA office and they relied on Somali community groups who don’t specialize in DV and gave him a positive review. But they weren’t the only ones.
The Abrahams case breaks my heart. So I’m trying to figure out why police didn’t come when she called 911 at 7am, or when a neighbor called a few minutes later to report that they heard screaming and saw him push her into a window, even though officers had responded to violence in the home multiple times. Police came after the killer called and said she was dead. After 10am. She had cuts all over her body, most likely administered before she was strangled to death, so her killer clearly took his sweet time. But so did the police. Where’s the outrage that police took three hours to respond? Police also failed to break down the door when Christina Lee was being stabbed more than 40 times in her Chinatown apartment in Manhattan. And it took an hour and twenty minutes for the Emergency Service Unit to arrive. Yet everyone blamed criminal justice reform, like in the Portland case.
Criminal reformers and reform policies are an easy target because intuitively we think, if criminals are in prison, they won’t commit crime, therefore there will be less crime.
But for a wide range of reasons that’s just not true. We tend to focus on inhumanely long sentences and we should. But that focus obscures the fact that the average sentence isn’t that long: 147 months, or 12 years. That’s not long enough for someone to age out of crime. The pettier the crime, obviously, the shorter the sentence, except in cases where our psycho habitual offender laws come into play.
Let’s say police arrest a 17-year-old for a robbery. A reform DA will prosecute the case in juvenile court and try some kind of diversion program over prison. A “tough” DA might try to prosecute them as an adult and send them to adult prison for about 2 years.
In the first case, the kid has to do some pain in the ass program but he also gets to finish high school and get a job and a girlfriend and maybe start a family. In the other case, the kid spends graduation day in prison and then comes out at age 21 with maybe a GED, traumatized, and with diminished job prospects. “Boohoo, don’t do the crime when you can’t do the time!”
Sure, fine, except that trauma exacerbates mental illness. And men, in particular, are prone to processing trauma with rage. Meanwhile, they have limited opportunities for meaningful work. Limited community ties. These are the things that stop people from committing crimes. Studies have shown that violent crime is higher in red states regardless of the politics of the DAs (which are also mostly red). Probably the main reason is the proliferation of guns. But I wonder if more aggressive “tough” prosecutors might also contribute my exposing more people to the traumatizing horrors of the criminal justice system.
You note in your post that all reform DAs have two things in common. “The policies of each of these prosecutors was essentially the same: End incarceration for nonviolent offenses and abolish cash bail.”
They do not promote ending incarceration for nonviolent crimes because they prioritize criminals over victims. They do this because prosecuting nonviolent crimes does not lead to fewer violent crime. In fact, it takes away police and court time and resources to address violent crime, which might explain why homicide and rape clearance rates are abysmally low. And one of the reasons crime spiked during the pandemic is that the courts stalled to a virtual stop. One imagines that declogging them by diverting nonviolent crimes to other institutions will help them spend more time getting the serious crimes right.
As mentioned above, a nonviolent criminal isn’t going to go to prison until they’re 85, they’re going to be in and out of jails and prisons, more traumatized and with fewer resources and opportunities.
The tagline of pretend moderate reformers like NYC’s Mayor Eric Adams is balancing “safety and justice.” But you don’t have to do that. A more just criminal system improves public safety longterm.