Criminal law

What happened to criminal justice reform?

It seems that criminal justice reform was in vogue only yesterday.

Progressives were elected as prosecutors. Laws were passed to decongest prisons and divert criminals from the system who needed treatment, not prison. Judgment transgressions from 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. With crime rates rising from almost historically low levels, the mood has deteriorated and ultra-conservative attitudes toward crime are re-emerging, at odds with the liberal agenda.

Chesa Bowden, a progressive San Francisco attorney general who was elected in 2019, was ousted in a recall election in 2022 after being accused of “coddling” criminals. Los Angeles County Area. Georges Gascon, another reformer with a supposed “pro-criminal” agenda. He narrowly evaded his second summons last year’s challenge.

homelessness and crime became dining room discussions in Los Angeles and San Francisco; The violence in the subway preoccupied New Yorkers. Overdoses linked to fentanyl have prompted San Francisco to reconsider its “Safe Harbor City” ordinances. The law that fixed the unfair bail process in New York City four years ago was It has been reduced three times, most recently in April. Police departments, which were threatened with defunding, And their budgets have increased In many cities across the country.

In the run-up to last fall’s midterm elections, crime ranked second in importance to voters. According to Gallup.

The battle continues, and it is against this background that I read last week that Bowden — a 42-year-old public defender turned attorney general and then private citizen — had been hired by the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. to be the CEO New Criminal Law and Justice Center.

The center will do litigation, legislative advocacy, and public education, which is supposed to aim to reform our often unfair, punitive, and ineffective criminal justice system.

But I was especially pleased to hear Bowden talk about the new job, that he’s also focused on another area: data analysis and research. He says he is tired of public talk of crime politics being “devoid of science, data or even short-term memory”.

It’s about time.

It has long been axiomatic that attitudes about crime and punishment are cyclical, characterized by a pendulum swing of permissiveness followed by a desire to crack down and lock everyone up indefinitely. Public sentiment mostly depends on whether crime is on the rise or down.

But often these mood shifts depend on how insecure people are Feel rather than how safe they actually are; They are not driven by facts but by emotion, fear and harrowing tales. Public policy is often made in response to sensational headlines and tweets, and by politicians reading opinion polls.

On top of that, there is strong political pressure from police unions, prison guards, prosecutors and crime victims’ groups whose chilling stories encourage a return to the key-tossing politics they believe in. On the other hand, progressive reformists can also be ideologically intransigent and emotionally driven, just like their opponents.

So I’m asking for more hard information about what’s going on, what works and what doesn’t. Bowden points out that legislatures tend to pass laws, but don’t look back a year or two later to analyze their findings. Or they set up experimental programs and then, oddly enough, don’t study the results.

Here are some things I’d like to know (although I don’t mean to imply that they haven’t been studied):

When we divert people from the criminal justice system to substance abuse treatment or mental health care, do they cleanse their actions or do they relapse into crime?

When we release more suspects before trial, do crime rates go up significantly or slightly?

Do Safe consumption sites Encouraging drug use? And if so, how do you compare that to the lives they save by preventing overdoses?

Bowden is a well-known advocate for progressive criminal justice reform policies. I asked him if his data analysis would be designed simply to confirm his preconceived notions. It’s rough.

“I have my world view, my life experience, my professional experience, but that doesn’t mean we will focus on results in our research,” he said. “I want policy choices to be backed by facts, not by the lack of information we have now.”

For my part, I support criminal justice reform, but I am not a theoretician. I think we’re imprisoning a lot of people who really need treatment. We make it very difficult for ex-offenders to return to society. There are stark disparities, racial and otherwise, in the bail system and sentencing process. We are very 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 welcome more research to help policymakers develop smart, humane, and effective strategies to combat crime and rehabilitate offenders.

Bowden is a fascinating character whose backstory has been told so often that it may have become all too familiar. his mom, Cathy Bowden, was a member of the extremist Weather Underground organization and in 1981 participated in the Brink’s armored truck robbery during which three people were killed. She spent 22 years in prison. His father, David Gilbertserved 40 years in prison for participating in the same crime.

This means that their son spent most of his youth wandering inside and outside prisons to visit them, even after he became a lawyer, public defender, and then a public prosecutor. He believes his “live experience” helps him bridge the gap between the real world and what lawmakers in Sacramento are discussing.

Bowden was called out of his job as attorney general by voters who, in my opinion, didn’t give him enough of a chance. Let’s see if he and the Berkeley Center for New Law can produce useful data and innovative policy recommendations that will stop the pendulum and make policing and prosecution fairer.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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