Turn on a television in any state with a competitive Senate or gubernatorial race, and you’ll see that the criminal-justice reform agenda is under constant attack.
Republicans are pinning higher crime rates on Democrats who have expressed sympathy for almost any aspect of the movement to confront racial inequities in the criminal-justice system. In New York, a conservative super PAC opposing Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul is slamming her for defending “the state’s disastrous cashless bail experiment” and refusing to “remove liberal prosecutors, like [Manhattan’s] Alvin Bragg, who too often downgrade charges for dangerous criminals.” In Pennsylvania, the National Republican Senatorial Committee links John Fetterman to “sanctuary cities, weak prosecutors, crime skyrocketing—failed liberal policies, making us less safe.” In Wisconsin, Republican ads ominously ask, “What happens when criminals are released because bail is set dangerously low?” and accuse Mandela Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, of wanting to completely eliminate cash bail (not surprisingly, the full story is more complicated).
These attacks assume that the changes in criminal-justice policies that some states and many cities have pursued over the past few years are undermining public safety and fueling higher crime rates.
But an exhaustive new study released today by the Center for American Progress refutes that allegation. Conducted by a team of seven academic researchers, the study compares cities that have elected so-called progressive prosecutors with places whose district attorneys continue to pursue more traditional approaches.
Countering conventional wisdom, the study found that homicides over recent years increased less rapidly in cities with progressive prosecutors than in those with more traditional district attorneys. It also found no meaningful differences between cities with progressive or traditional DAs in the trends for larceny and robbery. “I think it’s really important to emphasize the extent to which we looked for a relationship and found none” between a prosecutors’ commitment to reform and crime rates, Todd Foglesong, a fellow in residence at the University of Toronto and one of the co-authors, told me.
The data, from CAP, a liberal think tank and advocacy organization, reinforces the message from a study released earlier this year by Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. That report found that per capita murder rates in 2020 were 40 percent higher in states that voted for Donald Trump than in those that voted for President Joe Biden. The study found that eight of the 10 states with the highest per capita murder rates in 2020 have voted Republican in every presidential election in this century.
Progressive prosecutors have made major electoral gains since the mid-2010s, winning elections in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, among other big cities. In a recent interview, Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s aggressively reform-minded DA, told me that about 20 percent of the nation’s population now lives in jurisdictions with a progressive prosecutor, compared with about 10 percent a little more than two years ago and essentially none 10 years ago. Fueled by the mass protests for racial equity that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020, these prosecutors have pursued a range of common policies, including reducing reliance on cash bail, prosecuting fewer (or no) juveniles as adults, diverting more nonviolent offenders from prison to treatment programs, discouraging prosecution of quality-of-life violations associated with homelessness (such as public urination), and prosecuting more police misbehavior.
But rising crime rates—and, just as important, a sense of disorder linked to pervasive homelessness in multiple big cities—have forced the movement onto the defensive. San Francisco voters recalled Chesa Boudin, their progressive DA; polls showed that George Gascón, the like-minded Los Angeles district attorney, had a very good chance of being removed as well if opponents had collected enough valid signatures to qualify their recall effort. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled state legislature in Pennsylvania, citing Philadelphia’s high homicide rate, is exploring whether to impeach Krasner (although he, and other legal scholars, say it lacks the legal authority to remove him).
Amid this storm, the CAP study represents probably the most comprehensive attempt yet to quantify the progressive prosecutors’ effect on crime rates. Looking at the period from 2015 to 2019, for instance, the study found that murder rates increased in a smaller share of cities with progressive prosecutors (56 percent) than in those with traditional prosecutors (68 percent) or prosecutors who fell in the middle (62 percent). (The study used a classification system for local DAs developed by a former federal prosecutor who is a critic of the progressive movement.) What’s more, the absolute number of murders increased by more in the cities with traditional and moderate prosecutors than in those with progressive ones. When homicide rates jumped from 2020 to 2021, the study found, the increase was slightly lower in the cities with progressive prosecutors than in those with traditional prosecutors.
Similarly, the study found that from 2018 to 2021, robberies fell about as much in the cities with progressive prosecutors (down 5 percent) as they did in those with traditional DAs (down 8 percent). Trends in larceny looked about the same in both kinds of cities as well.
Foglesong told me that, despite all the political fire directed at progressive prosecutors, it shouldn’t be surprising that their choices haven’t exerted a notable influence on crime rates. Police make arrests only in a relatively small percentage of offenses, he said, and typically only about half of arrests result in prosecution (because of lack of witnesses or other factors). Small shifts in how prosecutors handle the very limited circle of cases that result in actual charges, Foglesong said, are mathematically too incidental to affect a community’s overall crime rate.
Conversely, it remains an open question whether the progressive prosecutors are advancing their stated goals of reducing the justice system’s racial bias. Foglesong said that although “some signs of evidence” point toward fewer racial disparities in charging practices, those trends have not been “thoroughly researched yet.”
But as the CAP report notes, the political problem for progressive prosecutors is that there’s no clear alternative explanation for rising crime. And so long as that’s true, the authors write, criminal-justice reforms will remain a tempting target, as the 2022 electoral season is dramatically demonstrating. “Our sense is that answers assigning blame to prosecutors and their policy changes will remain attractive in the absence of a more credible account of the interactions between crime and justice,” the authors conclude.
In fact, few areas of social science generate as much dispute—or as great a tendency for researchers to throw up their hands in uncertainty—as the long-term cycles of rising and falling crime. Adam Gelb, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice, told me we know “not anywhere near as much as we should for a problem that is as pervasive and destructive to lives and families and communities, and ultimately to our democracy.”
The overarching trend in crime rates shows a significant decline from the heights of the early 1990s through roughly the middle of the last decade. Nationwide, according to federal statistics analyzed by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, the per capita homicide rate fell by more than half from 1991 through 2014, as did the per capita rate for all violent crimes. After 2014, though, the decline reversed, and both homicides and all violent crimes edged back up through 2016.
The rates then roughly stabilized again for the next few years, before exploding during the pandemic. Though both homicide and violent-crime rates remained far below their peaks in the 1990s, each was significantly higher in 2020 than at the low point in 2014. Murder rates continued to rise in 2021, though as the CAP report authors note, more slowly than in 2020 in every city experiencing increases.
The picture for 2022 is, as usual, complex. In a midyear tabulation of crime trends, the Council on Criminal Justice found that despite continued high incidence in some cities, the overall number of homicides slightly declined through this year’s first half (though they remained well above the pre-pandemic levels of 2019). But the data found that aggravated assaults and robberies increased from 2021, as did multiple measures of theft, including residential burglaries and motor-vehicle thefts. At the height of the pandemic, as the council noted, homicide increased and property crime fell; now those patterns have essentially reversed.
Criminologists broadly agree on the reasons behind some of these long-term shifts. Gelb can rapidly tick off the accepted explanations for the decline from the 1990s through the early 2010s: the waning of the crack epidemic, more effective policing (through the adoption of community policing), a better economy, more sophisticated anti-theft and security technology, and more incarceration of dangerous offenders. (More liberal analysts dispute that final point.)
There’s also broad agreement that the pandemic itself was a crucial driver for the historic increases in homicide during 2020, though the exact mechanism for that isn’t clear. (One explanation is that shutdowns disrupted government services and increased the social isolation of the young people most prone to violence.)
But although competing theories abound (such as more guns or less conscientious policing amid increased scrutiny of their behavior), there’s no real consensus about why crime picked up again starting around 2014. Nor is there any consensus on whether it will now recede from its pandemic heights.
Rick Rosenfeld, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and one of the authors of the CAP study, told me some evidence suggests that homicide rates have peaked. But property crime is likely to continue rising, he said, largely because the high price of conventional goods amid soaring inflation has increased the market for lower-cost stolen goods, which creates more incentives to steal. “We live in a multicausal world,” Rosenfeld, a former president of the American Society of Criminology, told me. “Some things may be pushing up crime rates at the same time other things are pushing them down.”
“Multicausal” is far from the world most Democratic candidates are living in these final weeks before Election Day. The CAP study makes a thorough case that the new policies the progressive prosecutors are implementing can’t be blamed for the rising incidence of crime. But the slugfest on the campaign trail underscores an equally important truth: that as long as crime rates are elevated, those criminal-justice reforms will remain politically vulnerable anyway.