It seems like only yesterday that criminal justice reform was all the rage.
Progressives were elected prosecutors. Laws were passed to relieve prison overcrowding and divert offenders from the system who needed treatment, not jail. The overcondemnation of the crack era and the three strike era were undone. The bail system and the death penalty were on the defensive.
Then came the inevitable backlash. As crime rates rose from near-historic lows, the mood soured and tough-on-crime conservative attitudes began to reemerge, clashing with the liberal agenda.
Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.
Chesa Boudin, the progressive San Francisco district attorney who was elected in 2019, was ousted in a 2022 recall election after being accused of “coddling” criminals. District of Los Angeles County. Atti. George Gascón, another reformer with a supposed “pro-criminal” agenda, narrowly dodged his second recall challenge last year.
Homelessness and crime have become lunchroom discussions in Los Angeles and San Francisco; Subway violence worries New Yorkers. Fentanyl-related overdoses have led San Francisco to reconsider its “sanctuary city” laws. The law that reformed New York’s unfair bail process four years ago has been scaled back three times, most recently in April. Police departments, once threatened with defunding, have seen their budgets increased in many cities across the country.
As the midterm elections approached last fall, crime ranked as the second most important issue for voters, according to Gallup.
The battle is on, and it’s in that context that I read last week that Boudin — the 42-year-old public defender turned prosecutor turned private citizen — has been hired by UC Berkeley Law School to be the executive director of a new center for criminal law and justice.
The center will engage in litigation, legal advocacy and public education, presumably with the goal of reforming our often unfair, punitive and inefficient criminal justice system.
But I was particularly pleased to learn, when I called Boudin to discuss his new position, that he also focuses on another area: data analysis and research. He says he’s had enough of the public conversation about crime policy being “devoid of science, data, or even short-term memory.”
It was time.
It has long been a truism that attitudes toward crime and punishment are cyclical, characterized by swings of leniency followed by a desire to repress and lock everyone up indefinitely. Public opinion mainly depends on whether crime rises or falls.
But often these mood swings are based on people’s safety feel rather than how safe they actually are; they are not driven by facts but by emotion, fear and macabre anecdotes. Public policy is often crafted in response to banner headlines and sensational tweets, and by politicians reading polls.
Additionally, there is strong political pressure from police and prison guard unions, grassroots prosecutors and crime victims groups whose scare stories encourage a return to policies of throwing away the keys they believe in. . On the other hand, progressive reformers can also be ideologically rigid and emotionally driven, just like their opponents.
So I’m all for more specific information on what’s happening, what’s working and what’s not. Boudin notes that legislatures tend to pass laws but not go back a year or two later to analyze their results. Or they set up pilot programs and then, oddly, don’t study the results.
Here are some things I’d like to know (though I don’t mean to suggest they haven’t been researched):
When we divert people from the criminal justice system to addiction treatment or mental health care, do they make amends or do they re-offend?
When we release more suspects before trial, do crime rates increase dramatically or insignificantly?
Do safe consumption sites encourage drug use? And if so, how do you weigh that against the lives they save by preventing overdoses?
Boudin is a well-known advocate of progressive criminal justice reform policies. I asked him if his analysis of the data would be designed simply to confirm his preconceptions. He bristled.
“I have my worldview, my lived experience, and my work experience, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be results-oriented in our research,” he said. “I want policy choices to be backed by facts, not by the lack of information we currently have.”
For my part, I support criminal justice reform, but I am not an ideologue. I think we incarcerate too many people who really need treatment. We make it far too difficult for ex-offenders to reintegrate into society. There are gross inequalities, racial and otherwise, in the bail system and the sentencing process. We are too tolerant of inhumane treatment and excessive force.
But I also believe that dangerous people should be kept off the streets. I think the police should be allowed to do their job, as long as they do it fairly and responsibly.
I would like more research to help policy makers develop smart, humane and effective strategies to fight crime and rehabilitate offenders.
Boudin is a fascinating character whose story has been told so often that it has perhaps become too familiar. His mother, Kathy Boudin, was a member of the radical Weather Underground and participated in the 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored truck in which three people died. She spent 22 years in prison. Her father, David Gilbert, spent 40 years in prison for participating in the same crime.
This means their son spent most of his youth and young adulthood going in and out of prisons to visit them, even as he became a lawyer, public defender and then prosecutor. He believes his “lived experience” helps him bridge the gap between the real world and what is being discussed by lawmakers in Sacramento.
Boudin was recalled from his post as district attorney by voters who, in my opinion, did not give him enough of a chance. Let’s see if he and the new Berkeley Law Center can produce useful data and innovative policy recommendations that will stop the pendulum and make policing and prosecutions fairer.