Why Progressives Got Crime So Wrong
And why we can fight crime without mass incarceration
Originally published at Unherd. References drawn from San Fransicko
Over the last two decades, progressives came to a new consensus on crime. Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession should be reclassified as misdemeanours. Cities should defund the police and spend the money on nurses, psychologists and social workers instead. And offenders should have minimal involvement with the justice system — and be kept out of jail wherever possible.
But now, rising crime is rapidly undermining the progressive consensus. Homicides rose 30% in 2020, and over two-thirds of America’s largest cities will have had even more homicides in 2021 than in 2020. At least 13 big cities will set all-time records for homicides, including Philadelphia, Austin, and Portland. Meanwhile property crimes in California’s four largest cities rose 7% between 2020 and 2021. Car break-ins in San Francisco declined temporarily in 2020, because Covid emptied the city of tourists, but they have since skyrocketed, reaching 3,000 in November. Many residents have stopped bothering to report crime.
Of course, many crime rates are still below what they were in the Eighties. And progressives are right to say that we shouldn’t panic about rising crime, since past panics contributed to cruel and crude responses, including overly long prison sentences with little in the way of real rehabilitation programmes. That’s why, in the late Nineties, I worked for George Soros’s foundation, among others, advocating for drug decriminalisation, reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes, and alternatives to incarceration.
Today it’s clear that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. In 2000, when I stopped working on criminal justice policy, progressives were advocating mandatory rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration. Now, progressive prosecutors are simply releasing criminal suspects from custody without requiring rehab or extended probation. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for instance, a man who had run over the mother of his child with his SUV was released on $1,000 bail. Neither he nor his SUV were put under electronic surveillance. Soon after, he killed six people and injured another three dozen — by running them over with his SUV.
Meanwhile incarceration rates in the United States are at a 30-year low. In 2019, there were 17% fewer prisoners in the US than in 2009. And while progressives are right to point out that nearly half of the people in federal prisons are there for nonviolent drug offences, it’s worth noting that there are eight times more people in state prisons than federal prisons. And just 14% of people in state prisons are there for nonviolent drug offences. Half are there for murder, rape, robbery and other violent offences.
While homicides and other violent crimes merit special attention, crimes driven by drug addiction, such as shoplifting, public camping, and public defecation, undermine the fabric of city life. Progressives sold their criminal justice reforms on the idea that nonviolent offenders would be released into some kind of supervisory care, focused on treatment and rehabilitation. But often that did not happen.
Consider San Francisco. Its jail population plummeted to 766 in 2021 from 2,850 in 2019. If progressives had done what they’d promised, there would be 2,000 extra people on probation being supported to stay sober and out of trouble. That hasn’t happened. And that’s troubling because many who are released re-offend.
Half of all offenders — and three-quarters of the most violent ones — who were released from San Francisco jails before trial, between 2016 and 2019, went on to commit new crimes. Instead of benevolent paternalism, progressives delivered libertarian anarchism. And yet all that would have been required would have been weekly drug testing, check-ins with probation officers, and electronic monitoring.
Still, if we are to reduce crime without returning to an era of mass incarceration, we need a new consensus around criminal justice — one that prioritises prevention and rehabilitation, rejects calls to defund the police, and views probation as critical to making alternatives to incarceration work. And all of that starts with understanding why people commit crimes in the first place.
The “Root Causes” Fallacy
Progressives attribute crime to “root causes” like poverty, inequality, and structural racism. San Francisco’s District Attorney Chesa Boudin, for example, recently claimed that, “Affordable housing, quality education, access to health care and addiction services can provide the stability that empirical evidence has shown actually deters criminal activity.”
Of course these things are important, but there is little evidence that they prevent crime. Indeed, the study Boudin cited simply found that, in 12 cities where over 10% of population received welfare benefits, “more crime occurs when more time has passed since welfare payments occurred.” It did not look at the role of any of the factors he referenced.