Over the last several years, the progressive prosecutor movement has grown in popularity, with more and more policy changes reducing penalties for certain crimes. A common theme is for district attorneys to restrict prosecutions for certain offenses, and to reduce the severity of punishments for cases that are prosecuted.
One example is Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has been dismissing more and more cases each year, despite the fact that the city recently reached its highest murder rate in history. He thinks that his approach is “working,” per a recent local news interview (originally reported by Heather McDonald in the Daily Mail and summarized in a CJLF post). In the interview, he incessently denied that his policies have negative consequences and was seemingly unconcerned about the homicide increase.
The sheer fact that homicides have increased in Philadelphia every year of Krasner’s term should be cause for concern. Not surprisingly, a deep dive into the research confirms that Krasner’s policies are at least partially to blame for the increase in homicides in Philadelphia.
Krasner’s recent interview comes as no surprise, given that he has made many similar claims in past years. At the annual Federalist Society Meeting in December 2021, he claimed that his policies are “on the side of the data” and slammed traditional prosecutors for not “believing in facts.” At a December 2020 press conference, he essentially gaslit the community by saying, “we don’t have a crisis of violence.” This statement was based on the fact that overall violent crime is down, although he readily admitted that homicides and gun violence are on the rise. The latter isn’t concerning to him, apparently. In the past he has even argued that arresting people who illegally carry guns is “ineffective” in reducing gun crime, as well as “unjust and racially discriminatory.”
Opponents argue that de-prosecution policies will embolden criminals as they learn that there are no consequences for their behavior. The people of this belief know that the incapacitation effect is undeniable, and that lengthier sentences can reduce recidivism. In fact, recently published findings from the Sentencing Commission (USSC), one of the leaders on recidivism research, showed that people who served more than five years were significantly less likely to recidivate than comparable offenders who served less time (people serving 5-10 years had 18% lower odds of re-arrest, and people serving 10 years or more had 29% lower odds of re-arrest). USSC data also show that violent offenders, those who carry guns, and people with more serious criminal histories are the most likely to recidivate. Firearm use seems to be a particularly salient predictor of recidivism, according to a 2021 USSC report.
In Philadelphia, de-prosecution began in 2015 with District Attorney Seth Williams, marking the beginning of a substantial decline in both new cases prosecuted and sentencings (particularly for drug possession, drug trafficking, and felony possession of firearms). Since then, the number of homicides in Philadelphia has increased every year. When District Attorney Larry Krasner took office in 2018, these trends became even worse.
Krasner still denies that there is a connection between de-prosecution and homicides. In his TV interview last week, he stated that homicide rates in “Trump states” were 40% higher than “Biden states.” This statistic was likely pulled from a widely cited article by the biased thinktank the Third Way. But the data they presented was overly simplistic and not as conclusive as they made it sound. When I took a closer look at that study, none of the findings were statistically significant.
Part of the reason for the lack of significance is that state-level crime data doesn’t tell the whole story, and often obscures local-level variation underlying larger trends. For example, the Third Way study posits Mississippi as the leader in murder rates, but they don’t mention that the state average was largely driven by Jackson, where the 2021 murder rate was the highest in the city’s history (100 victims per 100,000). Coincidentally, Jackson has been run by self-described socialist Chokwe Antar Lumumba since 2017. Several other cities also broke homicide records in 2021, including the Democratically-run cities of Philadelphia, Portland, Austin, Baton Rouge, Rochester, NY, and St. Paul.
A 2022 study really drives the point home for Philadelphia, though. The study, conducted by Thomas Hogan, was methodologically strong and sufficiently met the criteria needed for studying cause and effect (ranked as a “3” out of 5 on the Maryland Scientific Methods Scale). In comparison, the Third Way study did not even come close to meeting the same criteria, and would not even meet the ranking of “1” on the same scale. According to the 2022 study, there was a causal link between de-proseuction and the homicide increase in Philadelphia — a link that caused an additional 75 homicides per year. For more information on that study, see my recent review where I break down the details.
As Heather McDonald notes, another concern is that the policies may actually exacerbate racial disparities, which is ironically the opposite of their intended effect. According to McDonald, black people have been the most impacted by the recent crime surge. In Philadelphia, blacks account for only 41% of the population, yet they comprise 85% of homicide victims. From 2019 to 2020, an additional 3,400 black people were killed by gun homicide, and the rate at which blacks died of criminal shootings increased 39.5%.
Many progressives that support de-policing and de-prosecuting believe that diverting criminals to community violence interruption programs will help them abstain from crime. These people often cite “research” in support of their claims. Once again though, not one of the major studies on community violence intervention programs stands up to scrutiny. When I took a closer look at the research on this topic, I found that the studies are riddled with selection bias (i.e., hand-picking the “right” participants) and inadequate comparison groups. In other words, the studies were pre-disposed to finding beneficial effects because they were only looking at a specific subset of participants rather than looking at the criminal population as a whole. Of course, certain participants might benefit, but not all of them will. The latter is much more relevant for crime control.
The progressive prosecutor movement came about due to the belief that mass incarceration is racist, and the idea that prisons teach people how to be better criminals (i.e., the “criminogenic” effect). Instead, they preach about rehabiliation and diversion programs and insist that criminals will stop being criminals if only they receive the proper resources and support. While this might be true for a small subset of offenders, it is likely not true for the majority, especially those who are violent and/or firearm offenders.
The research clearly shows that de-prosecution is not working. But because most prosecutors don’t understand statistics enough to differentiate a good study from a bad study, they will probably continue to cite crappy research that supports their narrative. My goal here is to help educate the public on what the research actually shows, so that they can make informed decisions during the next election period.
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