Justice and Public Safety Go Hand in Hand
The debate with Tana Ganeva continues
Welcome to the 4th in a series of open letters with Tana Ganeva about criminal justice. You can jump in here or start with part 1, “The Impeachment of Larry Krasner and the Sunsetting of the Progressive Prosecutor” (NR), part 2, “Reform DAs—tired or wired?” (TG), or part 3, "Data Never Override Emotion" and Other Disasters on the Road to Criminal Justice Reform (NR).
I started Make More Pie two years ago this month (🥳), writing about Los Angeles and Portland, Israel and Ukraine, heartbreak and journalistic spleen and, occasionally, actual pie. Upgrade to a paid subscription (or start a new one) or hit the Venmo today and I will send a special thanks your way. As to whether it includes booze and/or butter…
Here is my response to Nancy Rommelmann’s smart letter to me about criminal justice reform and progressive DAs. I think our word-counts constitute criminal reader abuse at this point, so please (civilly) bully her into doing a podcast with me.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful engagement and the great points you make. Let me be Gail Collins to your Bret Stephens (jk!!! This is supposed to be civil so no outrageous insults! ).
We know both that the pendulum will always swing, and also that, like fashion, trends start in the big cities and then spread, a version of that dress that debuts in Paris in 2020 winding up in Marshall's in 2022. I wonder if the very good and liberal idea that non-violent criminals need not be incarcerated is just now making its way to more conservative places like Oklahoma City.
It’s true, maybe the reform DA movement is like the Balenciaga you find in an outlet mall in Bakersfield. What I also think is happening is a demographic shift that’s altering national politics: young, progressive people who would have moved to Manhattan or San Francisco or Portland after college 20 years ago are moving to Austin or Nasvhille because of cliff-steep housing costs in blue cities in blue states. So I expect progressive breakthroughs in the next decade in red states with cities that tip blue-ish.
I very much agree with you that DAs can’t alienate the policing lobby. I say lobby, rather than police generally, because I don’t think ACAB. Joining a police department is one of the few ways for working class people to make a good living without a college degree. And police records show that a large majority of officers do not commit abuses. In the NYPD, 10 percent have dozens of CCRB complaints against them and multiple lawsuits; roughly 40 percent have none.
But the policing lobby is a very powerful and undemocratic force in US politics. Lefties are always railing against how weapons manufacturers are getting us into wars abroad but often miss this, perhaps because no one pays enough attention to local politics. In a 2022 paper political scientist Daniel DiSalvo argues that police unions and other associations are powerful players in local politics. DiSalvo describes their influence, noting right off the bat that police unions are far more bipartisan in their support than other unions.
“While the teachers’ unions typically give over 90% of their campaign contributions to Democratic candidates for federal offices, police unions and associations gave 61% of their contributions to Democrats and 39% to Republicans in 2018 (Open Secrets 2020),” he writes. “In state politics, police unions tend to even more evenly split their contribution between Democrats and Republicans (DiSalvo and Kucik 2018).”
This has several repercussions, the most important being that both Democrats and Republicans must kiss up to police unions. But we agree the police unions wield way too much power.
Onto Boudin. I’m a little confused by the data you cite. To me, it seems to show that crime went up in 2021, just like it did virtually everywhere in the country, and then dropped in 2022. Boudin was in office till July of this year and prelim data shows that crime has started to rise under Brooke Jenkins.
The comment you cite that claims there were “over 700 [overdose] deaths in a year - not one fentanyl sales prosecution.” is based on a wildly misleading report published ahead of Boudin’s recall in the San Francisco Standard.
'“DA Boudin and Fentanyl: Court Data Shows Just 3 Drug Dealing Convictions in 2021 as Immigration Concerns Shaped Policy”
That headline suggests Boudin let the dealers off with a handshake. No, he prosecuted them, just under different charges than literal “drug dealing,” but rather, accessory. All DAs mess around with different charges. It’s one of the bizarro-world aspects of the criminal justice system. Even the most tough-on-crime prosecutor will often negotiate lower-than-max charges to get a guilty plea and avoid trial.
We also agree that protestors can be annoying and hypocritical, regardless of the righteousness of the cause. As you say:
And yet how they went about actuating change - and I am going to take Portland as an example, since I was on the ground there - was often juvenile and uninformed.
Then there was the blond girl who ran up to me during on of the riots in front of the federal courthouse, screaming, “The police are killing all our black friends in the street!” I would have let her know two people in Portland had been killed that year by Portland police, both white, but she ran off into the crowd. Still, and as you note, the data would not have trumped the emotion.
I fully agree. There were lots of blonde girls screaming about cops killing Black friends they surely don’t have (“My Black friend lives in Canada….”). To that I say, whenever something becomes a fashionable mass movement it will attract dumb or mentally ill people. I still have nightmares about the fucking bongo drum circle at Occupy. Didn’t the Kardashians try to sell ACAB brooches made of blood diamonds? (I just made this up but you know it’s plausible).
In addition to the severe backlash created by the defund overreach, a major flaw is the virtual sole focus on police killings, which are relatively rare (though I believe should be 0 and would be 0 if America weren’t swimming in guns). That took attention away from the police abuses that are frighteningly common: illegal stops, roughing up suspects, false arrests. Take a swim in one of the databases that detail lawsuits against the NYPD. As I mentioned above, many NYPD officers have no abuse claims against them. But the ones that do, man, they do not mess around. Google "NYPD” “Assman” or “NYPD” “Bullethead” if you want to chuck up your breakfast.
And last, Rachel Abraham. I both dread and look forward to your feature about her murder. Literally every single institution failed her: judges, the police, the bail fund, the Somali group that greenlit bail for Adan to the bail fund, the progressive DA who threw the bail fund under the bus who I drunkenly yelled at. I guess all I can say about that is there’s a somewhat I believe myopic frame wherein whenever something horrible happens—Abraham’s murder, Michelle Go getting shoved onto the subway tracks in New York, Christina Yuna Lee’s brutal stabbing—the police lobby and the politicians beholden to them blame reform. Eric Adams blames bail reform for everything. The tabloid rags run with it. Nerds like me point out that, actually, the data shows blah blah blah … (it actually does show that a minuscule number of people out on bail re-offend violently).
But in virtually all cases, the dangerous person was out because of standard dysfunction of the criminal system and the courts. This dysfunction increases when “tough-on-crime” policies clog the system with teenagers who jump turnstiles.
I think that’s why we need a reframe of the false conflict between justice and public safety. Yes, sometimes terrible things will happen because of the righteous crusade to make the criminal justice system, well, actually just. But dig in and both logic and data tell us that overall and longterm, a better, rather than harsher, criminal justice system contributes to public safety.