Progressive prosecutors and public safety: success even during the 2020 rise in violent crime

Chris Stone crunches the data on violent crime in four major US cities to find that 'new-style prosecutors' – who are challenging the maximum-incarceration strategy of their predecessors – have been doing better on public safety.

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Police at crime scene in Chicago. Photo by J. Knecht on Flickr.
Police at crime scene in Chicago. Photo by J. Knecht on Flickr.

When violent crime spiked across the United States in 2020, conservative political operatives saw an opportunity to attack. Their targets were a series of new-style prosecutors who have been getting elected in cities and counties across the country and ending the overuse of incarceration and criminalisation of entire communities of color. These "progressive prosecutors" are challenging the divisive, maximum-incarceration strategy of their predecessors, declining to prosecute trivial offences such as marijuana possession and to lock up non-violent offenders in jail before trial.

Conservative strategists saw their chance to slow the momentum for reform by pinning the blame for recent spikes in violent crime on these prosecutors. As the 2020 crime numbers were published over the summer of 2021, the conservative media moved aggressively with headlines such as "Progressive ‘legal arsonist’ DAs behind US crime surge" (NY Post) and "Progressive prosecutors under fire for crime surge" (Washington Times). Even the UK’s conservative media joined in as the Daily Mail claimed, "Philadelphia’s woke DA... is presiding over a record crime spike."

But the evidence has shown just the opposite: progressive prosecutors have been doing better on public safety than their predecessors and their more traditional counterparts, even during the national rise in crime.

At first, the evidence came from studies of particular policies adopted by some progressive prosecutors.  As one team of researchers reported last September in a column for Bloomberg, a trio of analyses suggested that "progressive prosecutors' reforms are not making cities more dangerous, and may actually be making them safer."

More recently, as the conservative campaign has become louder, I decided to take a closer look at the FBI’s violent crime data in the jurisdictions where progressive prosecutors have been in office for more than just a year or two, comparing the changes in violent crime under these prosecutors with changes in their surrounding cities and states. Violent crime had risen in some of these cities, but how did those increases compare with those in surrounding jurisdictions where old-guard prosecutors held office?

The results are hugely encouraging.  Not only had violent crime not risen more under progressive prosecutors than under the old guard, but in every place I looked the progressive prosecutors were presiding over greater reductions or smaller increases in violent crime than in their surrounding counties.

I was able to find data for Brooklyn, New York; Chicago, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—all major cities where progressive prosecutors have been in charge since 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively. In each case, I compared the change in violent crime where progressive prosecutors presided with the change in the rest of the state (or, in the case of Brooklyn, in the rest of New York City). In each case, the jurisdictions with the progressive prosecutors did better.

Consider the trend in Brooklyn, which elected Ken Thompson in 2013 and then Eric Gonzales in 2017, both bold, progressive prosecutors. New York City has famously led the country in violent crime reduction since 1990, and Brooklyn’s violent crime fell right along with the rest of the city through 2013; but when Brooklyn elected its first progressive prosecutor, its reductions began to exceed those of the rest of the city, as shown in the graph below.

Change in violent crime rate in Brooklynand rest of New York City (1990=100)

Or consider Chicago, where Kim Foxx took office as Cook County State’s Attorney in December 2016. Yes, Chicago saw a rise in murders in 2020, as did the US as a whole, but the rise in homicide in Chicago since 2016 has been less than the rise in homicide in the rest of the state, as shown in the graph below.

Change in murder rates since end of 2016 (2016=100)

The effort by conservative writers to blame progressive prosecutors for the rise in violent crime collapses in the face of the evidence in city after city, as the patterns from Brooklyn, Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia all reveal.

There is much more at stake in these debates than who serves as chief prosecutor in a handful of American cities. These prosecutors have won office because they are restoring the confidence in the justice system in the very communities that rely on it most, replacing over-criminalisation and maximum incarceration with more reasonable policies and practices. In each of these cities and others, progressive prosecutors are not just replacing the old guard, they have gone on to win re-election with even bigger majorities than those that originally brought them into office. The culture of prosecution in the United States is finally changing, and the scare tactics of their opponents have thus far failed to slow this progressive change.

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