Since I started writing this blog in February, I have repeatedly hammered on the fact that violent crime is rising. I am no longer the vocal minority in this view. The rise in violent crime has now apparently become so serious that President Biden has released his own plan to counter it. The New York Times is running articles about police quitting. And Eric Adams, an ex-cop, is probably going to be the next mayor of New York City. All this has led to a rising chorus of voices, including on the left and center-left, to express concern that there will be a “backlash” to rising crime rates ending in a more conservative criminal justice policy.
This is a comforting cope for a lot of people. It’s comforting for conservatives, who are happy to see anything hurt the left. It’s helpful for center-leftists who would like to express concern about stuff like defunding police and rising crime without being accused of being racists by far-leftists. And it’s comforting for cops, police unions, and other pro-law enforcement folks who are holding out hope that the insane anti-cop dynamic of the last seven years will soon fade away. So it would also be comforting for me, personally, to believe this is true. But I don’t.
Let-em Loose Larry
On May 18th, the City of Philadelphia held a primary election for district attorney. Larry Krasner, the “progressive” incumbent, was running for re-election in the Democratic primary against Carlos Vega.
Vega should have had a chance. He’s Latino, grew up in a working-class family, and spent his entire career in public service — a veteran prosecutor of 35 years. Krasner only won the office originally by winning a messy Democratic primary in 2017 with just 38% of the overall vote. And Krasner has done an objectively terrible job as Philadelphia’s district attorney. In all of 2016 the city saw just 277 homicides — this year to date, there have already been 324 with almost four months left to go.
You can draw a straight line from Larry Krasner to the rise in gun violence: The spike in homicides started the year he took office, and under his leadership, the district attorney’s office has been absurdly soft on violent criminals. His office now gives dozens of gun offenders diversion agreements every year — six times as many as the previous district attorney. He’s refused to violate the probation of violent offenders who commit new crimes. In 2019, while his office was prosecuting a man for shooting a store owner with an AK-47, Kranser agreed to a plea deal sending the defendant to prison for just three-and-a-half years. The U.S. Attorney, William McSwain, reacted by filing a separate federal prosecution against the same defendant and saying:
[W]hen the office consistently undercharges violent-crime cases, when it offers sweetheart deals to violent defendants, when its overall stated priority is decarceration, when it leads the charge for lenient bail conditions … when the district attorney refers to himself as a ‘public defender with power’ — violent criminals take notice of all of that. And they become emboldened. They think they can literally get away with murder.”
In 2020, just prior to this year’s primary election for district attorney, the city recorded almost 500 murders. The Democratic Party of Philadelphia refused to endorse Krasner for re-election, as did Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney.
So in the face of all this, one might have expected that Krasner would face a tough re-election campaign. But he didn’t. Instead, Carlos Vega got blown out two-to-one, and Krasner is now the Democratic nominee for district attorney once again. Since there is no functioning Republican Party in Philidelphia, Larry Krasner will be the district attorney for at least another four years — and so the bloodshed will continue.
How criminal justice policy is decided
A while ago, Richard Hanania had a well-received Substack post called “Why Is Everything Liberal?” Hanania answered the question by referring to the difference between what he calls cardinal and ordinal preferences:
Elections are a measure of ordinal preferences. As long as you care enough to vote, it doesn’t matter how much you care about the election outcome, as everyone’s voice is the same. But for everything else – who speaks up in a board meeting about whether a corporation should take a political position, who protests against a company taking a position one side or the other finds offensive, etc. – cardinal utility matters a lot. Only a small minority of the public ever bothers to try to influence a corporation, school, or non-profit to reflect certain values, whether from the inside or out.
In terms of ordinal preferences, Hanania says, liberals and conservatives are about equal — they both vote, and about half of the votes go to each party. But in terms of cardinal preferences, liberals have an advantage because they simply care a lot more. This means institutions like universities, the media, and corporate boards reflect liberal priorities and not conservative ones. Arguably, the pro-gun and pro-life movements are exceptions to Hanania’s observation. These movements win because they consist of hard-core activists willing to fight hard for what they want. (I thought Hanania himself said this, but now I can’t find where.)
With this dynamic in mind, we have to look at how criminal justice policy is set.
First, the Federal government sets almost no policy in this area. The U.S. government doesn’t operate a national police force or prosecute most crime. Yes, the Feds can do something here or there — In Philly, U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain charged the occasional federal gun case and made critical statements. But overwhelmingly, criminal justice budgets and priorities are set at the local level by city councils, mayors, and elected district attorneys like Krasner, and a U.S. Attorney can’t change that. So while it’s possible voters could blame Democrats for the spike in crime and punish them in the 2022 midterm elections or the 2024 presidential election, that is unlikely to change local policy.
Second, it’s important to remember that in contemporary urban politics, there are no conservatives. With rare exceptions, the Republican mayor is dead. The Republican-controlled city council is even deader. Nationally, the GOP platform relies on pointing to the violence in urban areas and telling suburban and rural voters “don’t let liberals turn your city into that.” There is no chance that Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Baltimore, or Chicago will elect a Republican to any office, mostly because there are almost no Republicans living there. Between 70-90% of the people who live in these cities are registered Democrats — in Philly, Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1. So in cities, the two political factions are center-left Democrats and far-left Democrats.
Third, many big cities hold local elections in a manner that is designed to suppress voter turnout. Many Democrats will be unhappy to hear me say that because voter suppression is allegedly a GOP thing, but when your mayoral election is decided in a closed primary in an odd-numbered year, you are using a system deliberately designed to suppress turnout. In Philadelphia, there were a grand total of 193,000 votes cast in the 2021 District Attorney primary election. That’s 19% of all registered voters.
Finally, when it comes to electing candidates for local office, there is a massive information gap. Many people — maybe most people — don’t understand what an elected prosecutor does. They may or may not understand how much control the mayor has over the police department, or how much control the city council has over local laws. These things vary a lot from state to state and even city to city. For many working-class people, voting in a low-profile, off-year election is a low priority. They may not even know an election is happening. Take this interview conducted with a woman in Philadelphia before the 2021 primary:
Gina Lopez, a pharmacy technician who lives in nearby Hunting Park, said shootings are so prevalent that she doesn’t let her kids play outside. She’s looking to move. “It’s really bad,” she said. “Everybody’s killing everybody.” … Lopez is a registered Democrat who voted in November’s presidential election but was unaware of the primary.
“I haven’t heard of it,” she said. “I did vote [last] year, but … I just feel like a lot of times, I feel like everyone fails us, for the most part.”
Gina Lopez is probably exactly the kind of voter Carlos Vega needed to show up and vote if he wanted to win. But she didn’t even know there was an election. Even if she had, it seems she has a pretty limited understanding of the difference between this election and the presidential one.
Leftist activists care more
With all of the above in mind, it seems obvious the cardinal/ordinal dynamic Hanania described operates very differently when local governments set criminal justice policy. Cardinal utility still counts — activists and elites who show up to council meetings, donate money, and hold rallies will get what they want. But while ordinal preferences keep things balanced in high-profile national elections, the ordinal preferences of people who don’t care much about politics have almost no impact on local policy. The people who care enough to 1) know there is an election 2) know what the issues are and 3) cast a ballot in a closed primary in an off-year election are more or less going to be the same high-information elites who lobby local officials in other ways.
One might wonder why if that is the case, many cities used to be “tough on crime.” Not long ago, the dominance of elites in local politics operated to the benefit of the moderate Democrats when it came to crime and policing. The “activists” who cared a lot tended to be vested interests — the police union, the chamber of commerce, labor unions, the newspaper editorial board, and so on. These are the people who would raise money and turn out voters in a low-profile local election. In some places (like New York City) they still swing a big stick. They also still have power in certain policy areas, such as the YIMBY/NIMBY upzoning debate.
But in the criminal justice arena, leftist activists have now mastered the system. The ACLU used to wage a mostly legal campaign challenging tough-on-crime policies as being unconstitutional. They still do this, but they’ve realized that rather than wait for the Supreme Court to come around, they could take over local DA offices and put an end to a huge number of criminal prosecutions. If the prosecutor is a public defender, you get the policies you want without even changing the law. Low turnout elections are easy to reshape with a few hundred thousand dollars in ads and a well-funded turnout operation — and liberal megadonors have been giving big time. In Krasner’s first primary election for District Attorney, George Soros dumped 1.7 million dollars into the race — blowing every other candidate out of the water.
There is an organic aspect to this shift driven by viral videos and social media, but it’s not nearly what many people seem to believe it is. For example, poll after poll shows that there is basically no constituency at all for defunding the police — in white neighborhoods or black ones. But this is an ordinal preference expressed by voters who probably don’t show up to city council meetings or protest or vote in off-year elections, so it has little impact. Low-income voters in New York City overwhelmingly oppose defunding the NYPD, but that didn’t stop the city council from doing it anyway in response to a well-organized lobbying campaign.
There’s no constituency for tough-on-crime politics
The backlash theory, as I understand it, hinges on the idea that rising crime will change this dynamic because people victimized by or afraid of crime will mobilize politically and decide to lobby for and vote for more conservative criminal justice policies. The main point raised in favor of this argument is that this is what happened last time crime went up. But it’s not clear to me this is actually supported by the historical record. Starting in the 1960s, crime in America was very high — much higher than it is now — and it stayed high for decades.
Tough on crime policies like Biden’s infamous crime bill and longer sentences for repeat offenders didn’t really take off, especially at the local level, until the late 80s and early 90s. For example, in 1982 as California voters were considering adding a “Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights” to the state constitution, state-level elected officials and the media were mostly critical of it. The arguments made then were the same as the arguments made today — we have too many people in prison, it will be expensive, crime isn’t really that high, and so on. The amendment passed, but with only 54% of the vote. The “tough on crime” movement wouldn’t really explode until the late 80s — decades after the homicide rate really started to spike.
Second, crime victims themselves aren’t really a political constituency. The violent crime rate in the U.S. is, by international standards, shockingly high — six murders per 100,000 residents and 367 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. But look at that denominator: “Per 100,000 residents.” Even if the risk of criminal victimization were random (which it is not) any person’s odds of being a victim would be extremely low. Since 2014, there have probably only been about nine million people victimized by a violent crime in a country of 330 million people. If every single post-Ferguson crime victim and two family members voted for tougher-on-crime policies, they would represent a voting block about the size of the entire Asian American community.
In reality, violent crime is not evenly distributed across the population — and as a result, crime victims are not likely to mobilize in favor of tough-on-crime policies. The people who exert influence on local criminal justice policy are local elites — people who spend money on elections and show up to city council meetings. But violent crime victims are overwhelmingly poor. They are not likely to be members of the local elite who show up to city council meetings and vote in off-year elections.
Additionally — and this doesn’t get talked about much — many violent crime victims are violent criminals themselves. One of the biggest risk factors for being a victim of violent crime is having a track record of having committed violent crimes yourself. This association is so strong that you can actually do a pretty good job predicting who will commit a shooting in the future by looking at whether they’ve been a shooting victim recently. I doubt that violent crime victims and their family members are likely to lobby for tough-on-crime policies that might put them or their loved ones in jail.
This leaves only moderate, upper-and-middle-income liberals. But going back to Hanania’s cardinal/ordinal framework, being moderate necessarily implies that you probably aren’t super passionate about politics. And much of the moderate liberal position on crime is just lukewarm criticism of policing instead of yelling ACAB. “I think we should have police reform but not defunding” is a position that makes Conor Friedersdorf feel good, but not one that will get anyone fired up to go to the ballot box or lead to less crime.
So while the excesses of leftists and police abolitionists make moderate liberals uncomfortable, will they take a day off work to go tell the city council not to defund the police? Will they do it when violent crime is just a spectator sport to them? Even when there’s a high likelihood someone in their social circle will call them racist for doing it? Will they vote in an off-year local election? Will they vote for Carlos Vega when Shaun King runs an ad falsely telling them he’s a soft-on-police-misconduct pro-Trump Republican? I think the answer is no.
A final issue is that many voters are cross-pressured when it comes to local politics. Mayors and city councilors and state legislators and judges don’t just deal with crime — they do all sorts of other stuff. If you’re a pro-transit, pro-YIMBY, pro-labor voter, you might find yourself voting for a candidate who supports all those things and also supports defunding the police, because crime just isn’t a priority for you. Few people are single-issue voters when it comes to crime and policing, and most of them are probably in the “ACAB” camp.
Electoral politics as a one-way ratchet
Even if the rise in crime leads to a well-organized, well-funded political push against pro-criminal policies at the local level, such a push is very unlikely to make any difference. Anti-police activists see electoral politics like Recep Tayyip Erdogan: It is a train they will take until they are ready to get off. Last July, the ACLU’s legal director David Cole — likely already foreseeing some level of backlash to soft-on-crime politics — explained why defunding the police would not be enough:
Barkow’s analysis suggests that it is not enough to slash police budgets if we want to ensure lasting reform. We also need to find ways to insulate the process from political winds. She urges that we entrust more criminal justice policy to experts, who overwhelmingly agree that the system is too harsh and too bloated. We don’t leave the regulation of air pollution or workplace conditions to a popular vote, she argues, so why should we do so with respect to public safety? Yet criminal policy is “set largely based on emotions and the gut reactions of laypeople.”
Darn laypeople! Why are they so upset about a 30% increase in homicide? And indeed, this is exactly what left-wing politicians have done when they feel it is necessary. In King County, Washington, for example, the county council decided the elected sheriff was insufficiently committed to “reform.” So they pushed through a charter amendment allowing them — rather than voters — to select the next sheriff.
If anything, an anti-democratic campaign against tough-on-crime policies would just be a return to form for Cole and the ACLU. Almost every single restriction on police right now exists as a result of Supreme Court precedents like Graham v. Connor and Terry v. Ohio which are not subject to democratic revision. Waging a war of attrition in the courts takes decades, but it gets lasting results: In the Ninth Circuit today, you have a constitutional right to camp on public property. And even in the 1990s, the Rehnquist Court happily invalidated democratically enacted, tough-on-crime laws.
Constitutional changes are permanent. Today, almost all cops (even me, as the name of this blog reveals) readily endorse many of the constitutional restrictions placed on them by courts — restrictions that both their predecessors and the general public would have once found unimaginable. If the left succeeds in eventually placing a few Larry Krasners on the Supreme Court, it’s not hard to imagine a world where it’s just taken for granted by everyone that Terry stops are unconstitutional.
I would love to be proven wrong. But if there is going to be a “backlash” against the policies which led to our massive increase in crime, people who care will have to step up and do something about it. They’ll have to contribute time and money. They’ll have to go to meetings. They’ll have to call representatives. They’ll have to stop voting for soft-on-crime candidates. And they’ll have to be better at all these things than a well-organized, well-funded anti-police lobby that is already miles ahead of them. They’ll have to care more. Until that starts to happen, I don’t see anything changing.