Stephens: Can liberals survive progressive justice?
It’s been nearly 30 years since then-Gov. Bill Clinton took a break from the campaign trail to oversee the execution of death row inmate Ricky Ray Rector. Morally, it may have been repugnant to kill a man so mentally handicapped by a failed suicide attempt that he set aside the pecan pie of his last meal because he was “saving it for later.”
Politically, it was essential.
By the early 1990s the American left had spent a generation earning a soft-on-crime image in an era of growing lawlessness. In 1988, Mike Dukakis secured the Democrats’ third landslide loss thanks in no small part to his stalwart opposition to the death penalty. Four years later, it was difficult to imagine any Democrat reaching the White House without a literal blood sacrifice to the gods of law and order.
Now Democrats seem intent on reviving that reputation. In Waukesha, Wisconsin, six people were killed and at least 60 injured when Darrell Brooks drove his Ford Escape through a Christmas parade, according to the police. Brooks already had a lengthy rap sheet and had reportedly run over a woman with the same SUV early this month. But, as the New York Times reported, he had been “quickly freed from jail on bond after prosecutors requested what they now say was an inappropriately low bail.”
What happened in Waukesha last Sunday is among the consequences of easy bail. And bail reform — that is, reducing or eliminating cash bail for a variety of offenses — has been a cause of the left for years.
Then there is California, which in 2014 classified possession of hard drugs for personal use and the theft of up to $950 of goods as misdemeanor offenses. In the Bay Area, the results have been stark: San Francisco’s overdose deaths rose to 81 per 100,000 people in 2020 from 19 per 100,000 people in 2014.
In the meantime, shoplifting has become endemic, brazen and increasingly well organized, culminating in mobs of looters ransacking stores and terrifying customers in the Bay Area last week. Local shops are closing, neighborhoods are decaying, encampments of drug addicts have proliferated, and streets are befouled by human excrement — a set of failures Michael Shellenberger calls in his thoroughly researched and convincing new book, “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” “the breakdown of civilization on America’s West Coast.”
As for the rest of the country: Can anyone seriously say that Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, or New York has been improved in recent years under progressive leadership? Why did rates of homelessness register their biggest jumps between 2007 and 2020 in left-leaning states like New York, California and Massachusetts — and their biggest decreases in right-leaning ones like Florida, Texas and Georgia?
Some readers might object that none of these trends take place in a vacuum. The jump in overdose deaths has surely been influenced by the effects of the pandemic, and they’ve also gone up heavily in red states. The rise in lawlessness is in some ways a product of last year’s social upheavals and a reckoning over how the police do their jobs. And murder rates have also gone up in Republican-led cities like Jacksonville, Florida, just as they have elsewhere.
True. But nowhere are dysfunctions more concentrated than in the very places that were supposed to have become beacons of progressive sunshine. And nowhere are the reasons more obvious, too.
If you permit petty vices and crimes to flourish, greater ones will usually follow. If you refuse to police quality-of-life infractions like public drug use or aggressive panhandling, the quality of life will decline. If you increase the incentives for bad behavior, and reduce the ones for good, you will inevitably achieve catastrophic results.
This is not social science. It’s common sense. It’s the basis on which the United States was able to make its streets far safer from around 1995 to 2015, when crime rates kept going down — above all to the benefit of the very minority communities that progressives claim to champion.
The Democratic Party has since thrown that legacy away. Joe Biden disavowed his 1994 crime bill. Last year’s protests often devolved into naked criminality, to which many progressives, including those in the news media, closed their eyes, notoriously including those “fiery but mostly peaceful protests” in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Opportunities for thoughtful police and justice-system reform were squandered in the rush to defame, defund, diminish or abolish.
It may be that serious urban leaders like Eric Adams, the incoming mayor of New York, can reverse the trend. Even the ultra-lefties in California DA offices, faced with recall votes, seem to have gotten the message that things are out of hand. But progressive misgovernance has now tattooed the words “soft on crime” on Democratic necks, and the country has noticed. It will take years to erase.
And who has been helped the most by all this, politically speaking? Donald Trump and his mini-mes. The country won’t be safe from them until a more serious Democratic Party can set itself free from ideas that embarrass it and endanger us all.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times.
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