Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

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

Posted by M. C. on July 21, 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.

Ben Spielberg and 

Leighton Woodhouse

Editor’s note from Glenn Greenwald:

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.

Whatever one’s views are on these debates, it is hard to contest that America’s exceptionally high rates of incarceration reflect multiple policy, social, and cultural failures. A healthy society does not imprison millions of its citizens. The question of why this is happening, and what the proper responses are, are far more vexing. Just as we aired a debate over Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner’s reelection campaign last year, we asked two advocates on each side of this question to engage in an ongoing exchange about whether the fault lies with excessive punitive approaches to crimes or whether leniency is to blame. The following is an exchange between two writers, Ben Spielberg and Leighton Woodhouse, in the first of what will be a continued debate published here on Outside Voices between the two on the subject of San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin’s recent recall and what it reflects more broadly on the issue of crime policies.

Ben Spielberg is a progressive writer and activist who has lived for years in the Bay Area. Leighton Woodhouse is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who lives in Oakland, CA. Initially a supporter of Boudin, (he even produced a campaign ad for the former district attorney), Leighton grew to be a sharp critic of the San Francisco DA during his tenure, ultimately advocating for his recall and reporting on what he called Boudin’s “legacy of failure.” Woodhouse also recently worked with California gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger, whose unsuccessful campaign to unseat California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) highlighted critiques of Boudin and reform polices generally. Spielberg opposed the recall of Boudin, and has written for this publication in defense of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner and other district attorneys with similar progressive projects.

As is true of all “Outside Voices” contributions, our publishing of these articles does not signify my agreement with all or even any of what any writer expresses. It instead only reflects my assessment that this exchange will enable readers to form their own views in a more informed and less propagandized manner. We hope you find the first portion of the debate to be illuminating. As the debate continues, we will post the responses of each for as long as the debate remains illuminating.

(On a separate note: we have been working hard to develop a new and quite major project that we will unveil next month. That is what explains the lighter-than-usual output here over the last several weeks. I am very excited about what we are about to announce and believe it will significantly transform and augment all the work we have been doing here. We will try to produce as much high-quality content as we can during this development process, but it is sometimes all-consuming. I am confident our subscribers will be as excited as I am once we are able to announce it).

By Ben Spielberg

What will ensure that people feel and are safe? That, to me, is the key question underlying the debate about crime in San Francisco and the recent loss of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a recall election. It is also the key question behind discussions of crime and prosecutor races in other parts of the country in which attorneys with visions similar to Boudin have won recently, including PhiladelphiaIowa, and elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.

See the rest here

Be seeing you

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