Crime Rates, Prosecutors and Telling Public Reactions

May 5, 2021

When it comes to thinking about crime, there are arguably two main camps. There’s the academic camp, where professors and researchers look at crime trends with a bird’s eye view of the data and see the situation in the United States as much better than it has been in past decades. Then there’s the camp occupied by most of the general public, which perceives crime to be increasing—even when, at least on a long-term national level, that is not true.

Does that make the latter camp stupid? John Roman, a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice and Society Group at NORC at the University of Chicago, emphatically argues “no” in a recent newsletter. Roman says that the typical person bases their crime fears squarely on a comparison between their home community—where crime rates may indeed remain high—and nearby communities, which may have experienced a drop in crime.

According to this theory, in cities where homicide rates have plummeted long-term, we should expect much less crime alarmism than in a place like Philadelphia—which, amid the pandemic, just experienced its worst year for murders since 1960s.

The theory seems reasonable. But it stops working when we consider the ways local constituents talk about their elected prosecutors.

The South Philly Review recently told of an “emergency meeting” at a school gym packed with angry locals about a “rash of increasing crime in our area.” One organizer concluded that “We must get rid of Larry Krasner,” the city’s reformist elected DA, in order to be safe. Prior to Krasner’s surprising victory in 2017, said another community leader, Philadelphia only saw “isolated incidents” of crime, but now it’s “every other day,” and she is “afraid to walk over to my daughter’s house around the corner.”

This sentiment, when we look at annual homicides as a proxy for violent crime in general, doesn’t match up with big-picture trends.

With less than a fifth of New York City’s population, Philadelphia had 23 more homicides than the Big Apple in 2017. That was the final year Krasner’s predecessor, R. Seth Williams, served as DA. Williams, a moderate criminal justice reformer, nonetheless oversaw a city with fewer killings than his predecessor, Lynne Abraham—who was so hellbent on sending people to death row that she earned the moniker “the Queen of Death.” Philly’s homicide rate has remained high throughout different prosecutorial approaches, likely due to a variety of complex social factors.

But when we look at say, Memphis, conversations are very different. Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich has been the chief prosecutor there since 2011. Memphis has gone from the seventh-most homicidal to the third-most homicidal major city in the US during her tenure. That is the case even though Shelby County locks up a tremendous number of people on Weirich’s watch. Yet locals there are not looking at the city’s murder rate and demanding to “get rid of” the prosecutor.

What’s the difference? When Krasner speaks, many find that he sounds too similar to a defense lawyer or social worker. In 2019, Philly Mag ran an opinion piece that began with “Gun-related violent crime is up in Philadelphia. That was entirely predictable when we elected a district attorney whose primary goal is releasing criminals rather than prosecuting them.” Even in 2021, facing an opponent who promises to balance criminal justice reform and safety, Krasner has opted to focus on his opponent being “corrupt,” rather than to position himself as the better crime-fighter. Perhaps Krasner does not think such a claim would be believed, given his approach, or that his core base does not want to hear him spout such rhetoric.

This trend of communities and reporters pounding on reformers while heaping praise on carceral traditionalists is stable.

When Weirich speaks, she sounds like a prosecutor should—at least in the minds of most of the American public. Her 2014 campaign ad explains how she “doesn’t apologize” for being “tough on crime.” She doesn’t believe in even tepid criminal justice reforms like Conviction Integrity Units, claiming “Our entire office is a conviction integrity unit.” When star criminal justice reporter Emily Bazelon ripped into Weirich for her misconduct in a high-profile murder case that saw a woman’s conviction overturned, the latter went ballistic on social media, calling Bazelon’s employer the ”pro-crime” New York Times.

Weirich has her critics, but they’re not packing school gyms. Outside of a small number of local activists, they are people like Bazelon herself and a handful of academics at Harvard Law School. The local news simply does not cast blame on Weirich for the murder status quo.

The difference in public attitudes to Weirich and Krasner is a compelling apples-to-apples comparison: Both lead very different prosecution efforts in big cities that have seen spikes in violent crime. Yet this trend of communities and reporters pounding on reformers while heaping praise on carceral traditionalists is stable, even when reformers are successful at the crime reduction aspect of the prosecutor’s job.

Based on John Roman’s chart, Phoenix was less comparatively safe in 1990 than in 2019, yet no one seemed to call former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (2010-2019) or his successor, Allister Adel (2019-present), “weak” on crime. Nor has anyone made such claims against retired Franklin County (Columbus), Ohio Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, former Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, or Clark County (Las Vegas), Nevada District Attorney Steve Wolfson—all tough-on-crime traditionalists who saw their jurisdictions struggle with worsening violence during their administrations.

In contrast, consider the vitriolic hatred reformers like Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Suffolk County (Boston) District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and Dallas County, Texas, District Attorney John Creuzot have dealt with, despite seeing their jurisdictions become safer in recent years, at least relative to other major cities.

San Francisco’s unique story illustrates similar truths. It’s one of the safest major cities in the country, and virtually every type of crime further decreased after Chesa Boudin, a progressive, became district attorney in January 2020. That year, the city was also relatively immune from an uptick in murders that swept most other US cities, including others in the Bay Area.

That has not stopped an aggressive citizens’ petition for a recall against DA Boudin from gaining ground by spreading misinformation about a supposed spike in crime.

An elected prosecutor system, which lends itself to grandstanding and soundbites, is an obstacle to the required nuance.

The very concept of a “progressive prosecutor” chafes against many people’s ideological framework. These prosecutors want to talk about crime, even homicides, as structural failings in a society that ignores or punishes its most impoverished and marginalized citizens. The traditional US prosecutor focuses on how to maximize conviction rates and prison sentences.

There is a way to have a conversation about reducing crime and incarceration, but the nature of an elected prosecutor system, which lends itself to grandstanding and soundbites, is an obstacle to the required nuance.

It’s notable that other peer nations, such as Germany, have found ways to limit both incarceration and crime. The key to that country’s success is a reliance on expertise, largely insulated from electoral pressure.

Esther Earbin, an attorney-scholar who served as a doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law in Freiburg, explained to Filter how this is so. Like most European countries, Earbin said, Germany “has an ‘expert-based’ model of crime control that emerged from the period of Enlightenment. The country’s penal policy is designed to be created and developed by elite groups of academics, jurists and public officials.”

German prosecutors are appointed and assigned through an administrative civil service process, and only after an application and screening process so rigorous that it has been described as “harsh.” They are seen as having a quasi-judicial role, with the minister of justice overseeing a strict chain of command with clear guidelines for prosecutorial behavior.

Because of this fundamental difference, the ability of countries like Germany to balance safety and low incarceration rates represents a conundrum for US criminal justice reformers. We are a nation obsessed with highly localized crime control and democratic criminal justice decision-making. People here would almost certainly rebel against the idea of making our criminal justice policy less harsh, but in an inaccessible, bureaucratic and expertise-driven fashion.

That is why the movement for decarceration takes so much time and effort to build here: To succeed through electioneering in most of the country, its voices must include not only those activists, academics and policy wonks with a grasp of the relevant data, but also law enforcement officials and other “mainstream” figures unlikely to be rejected as “radical” insurgents by a public full of unjustified, media-fueled fears. 


 

Photograph by Aranami via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Rory Fleming

Rory is a writer and licensed attorney. Previously, he ran Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors, and worked for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project and the National Network for Safe Communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He lives in Philadelphia.

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