Progressives have undermined American justice. Credit: Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

December 28, 2021   9 mins

Over the last two decades, progressives have established 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. 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.

But 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.

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 no 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.

Indeed, there is little evidence for the claim that poverty and structural racism have any impact on crime. African American crime rates were lower during the Forties and Fifties, when segregation was legal, poverty more widespread, and discrimination more overt, than between 1965 and 1990. Indeed, homicides among African Americans shot up after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And though it’s true that homicides rose during the first few years of the Great Depression, they then declined in most major cities afterward. And rates of crime, including homicide, kept declining after the 2007 financial crash and resulting recession, the worst since the Depression.

Homicide is irrational and emotional, experts agree, not a natural and predictable response to personal setbacks. Social conditions like poverty, oppression, and unemployment do not drive violent acts; people suffering from these conditions have varied rates of violence throughout history. Rather, one of the most important factors, when it comes to homicide, is the public’s belief in the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, as well as things like patriotism and “fellow feeling”. Homicide rates among unrelated adults in the United States closely follow the proportion of the public who trust their government to do the right thing, and believe that most public officials are honest. As trust in government fell in the late Sixties and early Seventies, homicides increased. When trust in government rose in the Fifties and mid-Nineties, homicides decreased.

So anti-police protests take a toll. In 2014, a white police officer in Ferguson killed an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager, causing demonstrations across the US. Afterwards, the police chief in nearby St Louis noted that, “the criminal element is feeling empowered by the environment.” In 2015, the US Department of Justice asked one of the country’s leading criminologists, Richard Rosenfeld, to investigate whether homicides had risen after the incident. At first, Rosenfeld was sceptical, noting that homicides in St. Louis had started to rise before then. But after looking at the evidence, he changed his mind. “The homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was real and nearly unprecedented,” he wrote in his 2016 report. Rosenfeld had found a 17% rise in homicide in the nation’s largest cities, between 2014 and 2015.

Rosenfeld told me, when I interviewed him, that last year’s Black Lives Matter protests had contributed to the homicide increase. “When people believe the procedures of formal social control are unjust,” noted Rosenfeld, “they are less likely to obey the law.” And BLM protestors fail to recognise that the people who suffer most, when the police can’t do their jobs, are black Americans, who are more likely to be victims of violent crime. They are seven to eight times more likely to be homicide victims than white Americans.

But progressives have gone one step further, by undermining the idea that police actually have any power to reduce crime. “Law enforcement is not going to prevent the violence,” claimed Philip Atiba Goff, CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, a few weeks ago. In 2020, then–vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted, “America has confused having safe communities with having more cops on the street. It’s time to change that.”

Researchers find that negative publicity about the police has a powerful impact on police officers. Little wonder, then, that in 2020, at least two dozen police chiefs or senior officers resigned, retired, or took disability leave in America’s 50 biggest cities. 3,700 beat officers left. Today there are fewer police officers per capita in America than at any time since 1992.

What liberals ignore is that there is good quantitative evidence that more policing can reduce crime. They argue that the police don’t actually prevent crime, they just punish people after the fact. But in 2009, President Obama’s stimulus package offered a billion dollars in grants to struggling American cities, to fund the police; cities qualifying for the grant increased policing by 3.2% and experienced a 3.5% decline in crime.

And there’s another inconvenient truth that liberals ignore: the evidence suggests that fewer cops may mean more police misconduct, because the remaining officers must work longer and more stressful hours. Working a 13-hour, rather than 10-hour, shift means cops are far more likely to experience public complaints against them, while back-to-back shifts quadruple the likelihood.

Still, progressives are busy gaslighting the public about their efforts to defund the police. A progressive columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle recently wrote, “while there is continuing debate about what is driving the violent crime increases … we know for a fact that defund had nothing to do with it. Because defund never actually happened.” This is patently untrue. After the Black Lives Matter protests, more than 20 big cities reduced police budgets by at least $870 million. The LAPD’s budget was slashed by $150 million in July, for instance. It’s just that homicides rose so quickly that most cities reversed their defunding budgets. “From New York City to Los Angeles,” noted the Associated Press at the end of last month, “in cities that had some of the largest Black Lives Matter protests … police departments are seeing their finances partially restored in response to rising homicides, an officer exodus, and political pressures.”

San Francisco is a classic example. After Black Lives Matter protesters last year demanded that cities “Defund the Police,” Mayor London Breed held a press conference to announce that her city would be one of the first to do exactly that. Breed announced $120 million in cuts to the budgets of both San Francisco’s police and sheriff’s departments. Last week, Breed u-turned dramatically, announcing that she was making an emergency request to the city’s Board of Supervisors for more money to fund the police and support a crackdown on crime, including open-air drug-dealing, car break-ins, and retail theft.

Progressives denounced her plan. They oppose enforcing laws, when addicts and mentally ill people break them, because they believe “the system” is fundamentally racist, wrong and the cause of social injustice. This explains why progressives are narrowly focused on black people killed by the police, even though 30 times more black people are killed by civilians. And it explains why Boudin and other progressive prosecutors are obsessed with emptying prisons. (“The challenge going forward,” said Boudin in 2019, “is how do we close a jail?”)

Still, there’s reason to be hopeful. When Breed announced a sweeping crackdown on open air drug dealing and crime, she said, “I’m proud this city believes in giving people second chances.”

“Nevertheless, we also need there to be accountability when someone does break the law … Our compassion cannot be mistaken for weakness or indifference 
 I was raised by my grandmother to believe in ‘tough love,’ in keeping your house in order, and we need that, now more than ever.”

My time working in justice reform taught me that tough love works. The Netherlands and Portugal are often held up as progressive utopias, and while it’s true that both have reduced criminal penalties, both nations still ban drug dealing, arrest drug users, and sentence dealers and users to prison or rehabilitation. “If somebody in Portugal started injecting heroin in public,” I asked the head of drug policy in that country, “what would happen to them?” He said, without hesitation, “They would be arrested.”

And being arrested is sometimes what addicts need. “I am a big fan of mandated stuff,” says former felon Victoria Westbrook. “I don’t recommend it as a way to get your life together, but getting indicted by the Feds worked for me.” Today Victoria is working for the San Francisco city government to integrate ex-convicts back into society.

It’s hard work, but it pays off. Over the last 20 years, Miami has reduced its “homeless” population by 57%, despite skyrocketing rents, by closing open drug scenes and providing free psychiatric care, drug treatment and basic shelter. In High Point, North Carolina, police targeted three neighbourhoods with persistent crack cocaine dealing. There, police officers, accompanied by local community workers, met with dealers in person, asked them to stop, and offered them job training, tattoo removal and help restarting their lives. The officers gave the dealers unsigned arrest warrants, ring binders of the evidence against them, and video proof of their crimes. It proved to be good motivation for the dealers to clean up their acts.

People in progressive cities are often shouted down for even suggesting a role for law enforcement. “Anytime a person says, ‘Maybe the police and the health care system could work together?’ or, ‘Maybe we could try some probation or low-level arrests,’ there’s an enormous outcry,” said Stanford addiction specialist Keith Humphreys. “‘No! That’s the war on drugs! The police have no role in this! Let’s open up some more services and people will come in and use them voluntarily!’”

But there is strong quantitative evidence that probationary programs that are “swift, certain, and fair” reduce arrests, recidivism, and drug use. The most famous of these programmes is Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE). It incentivised offenders to follow probation rules by applying guaranteed, immediate, and short jail time for parole violations like failing a drug test. One study found that HOPE reduced drug use by 72%, future arrests by 55%, and incarceration by 48%.

A researcher summarised the benefits of the program, saying, “HOPE actually gets people to change their behaviour by setting up a circumstance where their natural behaviour moves in the right direction. They don’t want to be arrested and go to jail, so they stop using. That’s a profoundly rehabilitative thing to do.” In other words, HOPE rewards addicts and criminals for behaving well, instead of simply expecting them to.

It’s time for a new consensus on crime. Enforcing laws will reduce violence. Pushing offenders to take responsibility for themselves, when they leave prison, will lead them to independent lives, rather lives of crime. Progressives have done their best to undermine justice, as well as common sense, for two decades. As well as refunding the police, we should apologise to them.

Michael Shellenberger is the founder and president of Environmental Progress, as well as the author of the best-selling book Apocalypse Never (HarperCollins 2020) and San Fransicko (HarperCollins 2021).