Thanks to sensible law enforcement policies, violent crime rates dropped by half nationwide over the past three decades. Although increases occurred in 2015-16, the rates again dropped during the first two years of the Trump administration. But reductions in crime are neither automatic nor inevitable. They are the result of federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutors working together to enforce the laws.
Unfortunately, a trend is emerging that could threaten the hard-fought progress in public safety. A small-but-troubling number of state and local prosecutors are vowing that they will not enforce entire categories of core criminal offenses as part of a misguided experiment in “social-justice reform.”
These purportedly progressive district attorneys, however, are shirking that duty in favor of unfounded decriminalization policies that they claim are necessary to fix a “broken” system.
The Philadelphia district attorney, for instance, has in effect decriminalized thefts of up to $500. Boston’s district attorney actually campaigned on a list of crimes her office would not prosecute, including drug distribution, “larceny under $250,” receiving stolen property, trespassing, malicious destruction of property and resisting arrest.
In San Francisco, the new DA has vowed not to prosecute “quality-of-life” crimes such as public urination and prostitution. The new DA in Fairfax County said during his campaign that he wouldn’t prosecute as a felony any larceny below $1,500 (ignoring the state threshold of $500), would not seek cash bail for felonies and would charge unlawful immigrants more leniently than U.S. citizens for the same crimes to circumvent the immigration consequences of the crimes.
While the Trump administration is dedicated to enforcing federal criminal law, as shown by the record number of violent crime prosecutions during the past two years, not every state crime is prosecutable as a federal offense. Contrary to the belief that inspires these so-called social-justice policies, the “system” is not broken. Just as violent crime rates are near historic lows, national incarceration rates have also fallen 13 percent over the past decade, hitting a 20-year low, according to a 2019 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Prosecutors have discretion to decide what cases to bring and how best to resolve them. But the categorical refusal to enforce basic laws geared toward public safety goes far beyond prosecutorial discretion, violates the duty to enforce the laws as passed by the legislature and flies in the face of the fundamental concept that no one part of government exercises total control.
Prosecutorial policies that disregard core criminal laws — and the inflammatory rhetoric that often accompanies those practices — also erode respect for the rule of law. These prosecutors risk demeaning the very institutions they are appointed to lead and fueling mistrust by promoting false narratives about the criminal-justice system and law enforcement. The prosecutors are essentially flipping the script, casting criminals as victims and police as villains. This distortion is not only demoralizing to law enforcement but also emboldens hostility toward both the rule of law and those entrusted with enforcing it.
Perhaps the gravest injustice of this “social justice” is the lack of respect it shows for crime victims. Consider the example of a woman in Boston who was attacked in 2017 while walking her dog. The victim was left unconscious, sustained a traumatic brain injury, and faces years of recovery. Over the victim’s objection, the district attorney, in line with these social-reform initiatives, sanctioned a plea agreement that allowed the attacker to plead to a misdemeanor and avoid prison time.
Prosecutors who have misunderstood their obligations are giving a free pass to many wrongdoers and are devaluing victims. That is not justice. To preserve the gains made in public safety, state and local partners need to work hand in hand with federal law enforcement to faithfully enforce the law and protect the American people.