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“We’re doomed!” How panic over progressive DAs masks the poor records of conservative prosecutors
Progressive prosecutors get all the attention. But how are crime rates in districts run by the "toughest-on-crime" DAs?
Law enforcement groups have donated upwards of $900,000 to District Attorney campaigns. In this series, we’re tracking the records of DAs with the most law enforcement support.
Last March, the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) released a video that showed a prison inmate cheering the election of Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon. “Whoop!” the man says, clinking a glass with his cell mate.
“We’re DOOMED!” reads a comment below the video.
In the past few years, news coverage has focused, laser-like, on progressive DAs like San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, Gascon, Chicago’s Kim Foxx, and now Alvin Bragg in Manhattan. “Can a Progressive Prosecutor Survive a 40% Spike in Homicides?”, the New York Times asked about Krasner’s reelection chances (he survived). Meanwhile, law enforcement officials and groups are having meltdowns at the prospect of real reform. When Bragg said his office would stop prosecuting misdemeanors like turnstile jumping and push for bail only for serious crimes, former police commissioner Willam Bratton lamented that George Soros, the liberal philanthropist, had “effectively destroyed the criminal justice system in America,” by donating to the campaigns of progressive DAs.
The alarmist headlines have proliferated during last year’s spike in killings, even though the rise in homicides occurred virtually everywhere, including districts run by Republicans and conservative DAs. As the Appeal pointed out, one of the largest increases in homicides occurred in Fort Worth, Texas, whose DA and Sheriff are “tough-on-crime” Republicans. Vox also observed that, “… murder rates increased in cities run by Democrats and Republicans, progressive and not.” But if you look at news coverage almost all discussion of crime is linked to cities with progressive DAs. This links reform to crime, causing even left-leaning people to wonder if progressives have gone too far.
While progressive DAs are often blamed for upticks in crime on their watch, tough-on-crime officials rarely face such scrutiny. At Substance we thought we’d shift attention from the DAs working to abolish the state/usher in anarchy and profile prosecutors who lobby for a stricter legal system—DAs who oppose decarceration and warn that any slack in the state’s punitive apparatus will unleash chaos.
Law enforcement’s favorite prosecutor
Michael Hestrin, the district attorney of Riverside, California, is “tough-on-crime” and it shows in his campaign coffers. Hestrin raked in $149,300 from law enforcement groups during his 2014 campaign and thousands more during his reelection in 2018, according to the Prosecutors and Politics Project. That’s $100,000 more than Florida’s Angela Corey—best known for letting George Zimmerman off the hook—has received from police groups.
Yet despite his commitment to aggressive prosecutions, the crime rate in Riverside is higher than in 83.9 percent of US cities. “In the last 5 years Riverside has seen rise of violent crime and decline of property crime,” according to the City-Data crime index.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation there were 1,686 violent crimes in Riverside in 2019. 17 murders, 139 rapes, 1,054 robberies, over 1,000 property crimes. Rapes, robberies, burglaries and assaults have all been the same or higher than the state average since 2016, Hestrin’s first year in office.
Riverside County, roughly 60 miles from Los Angeles, sits at the foothills of the San Jacinto mountain. There’s “no shortage of golf courses,” a travel guide assures. Riverside skews politically conservative by California standards. Democratic votes edged out Republicans by a relatively small majority of 53 to 45 percent in the last election. In contrast, only 24 percent of California voters were registered Republican in 2021.
Hestrin’s challenger in 2018, Lara Gressley, noted how much Riverside favors prosecutors in criminal proceedings. “Out of all the places I’ve practiced in my entire career, Riverside County is the most difficult for defense attorneys,” Gressley said.
Hestrin often claims that he’s merely reflecting the values of his district. "The community has to see us as tough and aggressive,” he said in 2018.
Still, as the Desert Sun reports, voters have been open to criminal justice reform. They’ve approved propositions that turned drug possession and petty theft into misdemeanors. Riverside voters cast ballots in favor of earlier parole consideration. They opted to legalize pot.
DA Hestrin has not been on board with these minimal reforms. “While every recent criminal justice reform proposition has been voted on favorably in Riverside County, each proposition Hestrin has publicly opposed,” the Sun observed.
Support for the death penalty is in decline in California—44% polled said they would vote to repeal the death penalty and 35% favored allowing executions in 2021.Yet between 2015-2019, when Hestrin was in office, Riverside led the country in the number of new death penalty verdicts: 16 to Los Angeles’ 10, and 9 in Maricopa, Arizona. Riverside was the only jurisdiction with two new cases in 2019.
“Since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978, nearly 1,000 people have been sentenced to death and 13 individuals executed,” writes independent journalist S.E. Williams. “Riverside and Los Angeles counties hold the dubious distinction of having sentenced more people to death than any other counties in the state or the nation.”
In 2019, when Governor Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on executions, Hestrin and other DAs lobbied against the policy. "We believe that the governor doesn't have the power to issue a moratorium with a law that he just doesn't like," Hestrin said.
Even as Hestrin accused Newsom of legal overreach, the DA himself was involved in the dubious project of expanding the definition of murder, a law he seems to like.
Fatal drug overdoses have spiked during the pandemic. Although health experts agree that the way forward is to provide medication-based treatment and the life-saving drug naloxone, law enforcement officials have long pushed for harsher punishment. That includes severe penalties for people who sell drugs, even though many so-called “dealers” targeted by law enforcement are users and small-time dealers, rather than powerful cartels or chemists in China.
In February of 2021, Hestrin announced that 22-year-old Joseph Michael Costanza had been charged with one count of murder after the accidental overdose death of an 18-year-old. “Those who sell fentanyl should know that and, if they choose to sell it anyway and someone dies, the dealer should be prosecuted for murder,” Hestrin said at a press conference announcing the charges. Costanza faces 15 years to life.
He was the first in the county to be charged with murder over an overdose. Less than a year later, Hestrin told New Channel 3 his office is prosecuting 10 cases of fentanyl deaths as murder charges. Such harsh punishments have done little to stem the tide of fatal overdoses.
Yet, no news article I could find blamed his outlook or policies (which makes sense—crime rates fluctuate and despite the claims of conservative critics, have little to do with how many people are locked up and for how long). Yet, progressive prosecutors have no such luck.
“Meet Chesa Boudin, the Rogue Prosecutor Wreaking Havoc in San Francisco,” the Heritage Foundation warned. “As Crime Shoots Up Across L.A., A Defiant D.A. Sticks to His Guns,” Los Angeles magazine wrote. “How George Soros funded progressive ‘legal arsonist’ DAs behind US crime surge,” the New York Post summed things up.
Tough on crime prosecutors escape scrutiny
Whenever a terrible crime occurs under the watch of a supposed “progressive prosecutor,” the media is on standby to criticize the movement for reform.
Last November, Darrell Edward Brooks Jr. plowed his car into parade-goers in Waukesha, Wisconsin, killing six people. News about his past criminal record soon came to light: Brooks Jr. had been arrested before for domestic abuse after running a woman over in his car. His bail following that incident was set at $1,000 based on the recommendation of the DA office’s.
Critics focused on DA John Chisolm’s alleged progressivism. “Meet the Progressive DA Behind the Waukesha Bail Catastrophe,” the conservative Daily Caller declared. Other, less partisan outlets followed suit, wondering if criminal justice reform had gone too far. “There's a backlash brewing against bail reform after the parade tragedy in Waukesha,” NPR noted.
But Brooks’ relatively low bail had nothing to do with reform. If you match up the initial charges in the domestic violence case with the Wisconsin bail schedule (the bail amount attached to each charge—which Chisolm did not change), the bail amount is standard. Prosecutors calculate bail based on the most legally serious charge. Because he didn't have a firearm, all but one of the domestic violence charges against Brooks were deemed misdemeanors, rather than felonies. The sole felony domestic violence charge counts as a less serious felony than the most legally serious charge, which is bail jumping. That’s how he got $1,000 bail, not because prosecutors were extremely sympathetic to his case.
Nevertheless, the Waukesha tragedy was presented as an outcome of reform.
When tragedy strikes under Hestrin’s watch, no media outlets blame his policies— a perfect illustration of status quo bias.
On December 15th, Martin Joel Ramirez Hernandez plowed his car into 52-year-old Jacqueline Morgan, who had stopped her car to help a stranded animal. She died four days later. The incident occurred in Riverside county, Hestrin’s jurisdiction.
According to court records, the driver, who was allegedly intoxicated, had three DUI cases going back a decade.
Why hasn’t Hestrin been raked over the coals for “causing” a woman’s death by not keeping him in prison for the repeat offense of drinking and driving?