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Crime, Incarceration, and “Reform” Prosecutors: a Debate

(OUTSIDE VOICES) Leighton Woodhouse, Ben Spielberg, July 23, 2022

The first in an exchange between two writers on the progressive San Francisco DA’s fall from grace and what it reflects about broader national debates over crime.

One of the issues on which I have long focused — both as a journalist and, prior to that, as a lawyer — is the extraordinary rates of incarceration in the U.S. For years, the U.S. has imprisoned more of its citizens than any other country on the planet — both in absolute numbers (despite having a population far smaller than China and India) but also proportionally. An oft-cited statistic tells much of that story: roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners are located on American soil, even though the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population.

The causes of these unique incarceration rates are varied and complex. In 2008, working in conjunction with the CATO Institute, I traveled to Portugal to research and produce the first-ever comprehensive report on the results of that country’s 2001 law which decriminalized the possession of all drugs (trafficking remains a crime). The data demonstrating its success was so clear and overwhelming that even the political parties and factions which originally opposed its enactment had come to support it. But even if that success could be replicated in the U.S. — and I believe it could be, albeit with some greater difficulty — that would not come close to moving the U.S. into alignment with the rest of the world regarding incarceration rates.

The issue of crime and incarceration policy in the U.S. has always been hotly debated in American politics, but, for a variety of reasons, has received even greater attention over the last several years. In 2019, the Trump administration worked with numerous advocacy groups including the ACLU to engineer bipartisan enactment of the First Step Act, one of the most significant criminal justice reforms laws in years. That law — which applies only to the federal justice system — “allows thousands of people to earn an earlier release from prison and could cut many more prison sentences in the future.” Given that most prisoners are in the state system, that law will have only a modest effect on incarceration rates, yet was intended to serve as a model for providing greater sentencing discretion to judges and ensuring that prisoners are motivated to engage in good behavior and to rehabilitate by offering early release.

Another more controversial response to these strikingly high rates of incarceration has been to elect so-called “criminal justice reform” prosecutors in large liberal cities. These prosecutors vow to rely less on lengthy prison terms, particularly for non-violent crimes, and more on polices of rehabilitation and “root cause” solutions, particularly for drug addiction. But high rates of violent crimes and growing perceptions of a lack of public security have made these reform prosecutors the target of public ire, culminating in the failed attempt to thwart Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner’s reelection last May, followed by the successful recall vote that removed from office San Francisco’s DA Chesa Boudin in June of this year.

Source: Outside Voices