Rebuttal for Paper That Links Reduced Prosecutions With Increased Homicides

    Something about the concept of “progressive prosecutors” tends to torpedo rational debate. Chesa Boudin, the recalled district attorney of San Francisco, was recently compared to brutal Chinese dictator Mao Zedong for the great “crime” of lightening up on petty theft and drug prosecutions. A few years ago, inflammatory ads twisted the words of Genevieve Jones-Wright, a progressive DA candidate in California, to claim she would not prosecute sex crimes; in reality, she supported decriminalizing consensual sex work.

    But these wildly inaccurate claims came from conservative political campaigns. Others have come from mass media. They don’t generally come, however, from Criminology and Public Policy—one of the most prestigious academic criminology journals in the United States and the flagship journal of the American Society of Criminology, to which virtually every professor in the field belongs.

    A new article in the journal by former Chester County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Tom Hogan brazenly implies that, together, former Philadelphia DA Seth Williams and current Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner are, through their pursuit of certain reforms, culpable for numerous homicides between 2015 and 2019.

    “Results from the synthetic control indicate that Philadelphia’s de-prosecution strategy was associated with a statistically significant increase of 74.79 homicides per year during the 2015–2019 period,” he wrote.

    “Once elected, Krasner immediately instituted policies to reduce the overall number of prosecutions and sentencings in Philadelphia, going well beyond what Williams had attempted,” Hogan goes on to state. “Krasner succeeded in reducing the number of prosecutions and sentencings. However, the trend of fewer prosecutions and more homicides that had started under Williams in 2015 accelerated under Krasner.”

    A rebuttal paper points out “several critical errors in the analysis that when corrected flip the direction of the effect and render the author’s estimated effect null.”

    Hogan claims this link is shown by the math, after he used a “difference-in-differences analysis using a synthetic control method to estimate the effects of de-prosecution on the number of homicides in Philadelphia.”

    Experts disagree.

    In a rebuttal paper published July 25, Jacob Kaplan, J.J. Naddeo and Tom Scott write that Hogan’s study has “fatal flaws.” They “point out several critical errors in the analysis that when corrected flip the direction of the effect and render the author’s estimated effect null.”

    They cite: “the unjustified short pre-intervention period, a failure to correct for imbalance over covariates in the synthetic control models, the use of homicide counts instead of rates as an outcome, an inaccurate description of the data used, and an inadequate explanation of data cleaning procedures including missing data.”

    All three coauthors have doctoral degrees in criminology or economics. Kaplan is a criminologist at Princeton University; Naddeo is a postdoctoral researcher at Georgetown University, whose work has included identifying racial disparities in the justice system; Scott, who obtained his PhD at the top criminology program in the nation, is currently a researcher with RTI International.

    They also complain that they asked Hogan for his original data, but that he refused. This lack of transparency is a common problem amongst conservative crime wonks who use weak data to bolster pro-carceral advocacy.

    “We … encourage the American Society of Criminology and other criminology journal administrators to adopt policies that require publishing authors to make their data and code publicly available, at least for the purpose of reproduction,” write the rebuttal authors.

    Political motivations provide key context for Hogan’s article; the former DA is an outspoken opponent of reform prosecutors. Both Williams and Krasner have been labeled as reformers, though Krasner, as Hogan notes, has gone further in that direction.

    When first elected, DA Williams (2010-2017) adopted what he called a “smart on crime” approach, pledging to balance harsh prosecution of serious violent crime with plans to “downgrad[e] penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana from jail time to community service and fines.” Williams also ended up seeking the death penalty much less often than his predecessor, Lynne Abraham, who led in its usage above the Mason-Dixon line.

    DA Krasner, who took office in 2018, has been more ambitious in his attempts to reduce incarceration and end the death penalty. He pursues fewer prosecutions for gun possession alone, for example, than other Philadelphia DAs, including Williams. Additionally, he has articulately made his case that focusing on illegal gun possession, rather than actual shootings, is a failed public safety strategy.

    When it comes to the rules of criminal justice as an academic discipline, a “cop exception” seems to apply.

    As to how a prestigious academic journal would come to publish a paper with such serious problems, there are essentially two ways to look at it.

    First, when it comes to the rules of criminal justice as an academic discipline, a “cop exception” seems to apply. Hogan is a prosecutor, not an academic: a fact that he seems to concede. (“Academics take a negative view of stiff sentences,” he writes in a new general-audience article, where he argues that harsher sentences mean less reoffending.) Criminal justice academia has a long record of placing cops and cop-adjacent figures on pedestals. James Dudley, one example of a retired cop without a terminal degree teaching at a university, has advised officers looking for a retirement job, “You will be able to teach with a bachelor’s degree at most colleges combined with the fact that as a veteran of several years in policing you will qualify as a subject matter expert (SME).”

    Even August Vollmer, the former Berkeley police chief who founded the first criminology program at a US university in 1916, appears not to have had a formal post-high school education.

    Alternatively, Hogan’s article could be looked at as a criminology version of the “Sokol affair.” 

    Almost three decades ago, after hearing a set of angry scientists complain that humanities journals would publish anything, so long as articles exhibited “the proper leftist thought,” physicist Alan Sokol sent in a deliberately bogus article filled with jargon in place of any actual meaning. An academic journal then published it.

    Today, it can be argued that anyone can be respected as a “crime expert” or criminologist, so long as they make some nod to a mathematical methodology. Jeff Asher, a former CIA analyst who worked for a scandalized Sheriff’s office in Louisiana (and failed to disclose it), argues for more proactive policing. He doesn’t have applicable academic credentials in criminal justice. But he is media-savvy and graphs basic crime data for his Twitter followers, and the New York Times cites him as an authoritative expert.

    Today’s backlash against progressive prosecutors seems to be combining with the longstanding sycophancy of some academic criminologists for traditionalist law enforcement, ushering the field toward a post-truth world.



    Photograph by Brandon Anderson via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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