The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats’ tough talk on crime pushes aside reform

Concern over homicides, carjackings and auto theft in some deep blue cities is prompting the shift

Baltimore State's Attorney Ivan J. Bates, right, announced his plans to get tough on crime after being elected in November. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun/AP)
13 min

Former Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby was a leading voice in Democrats’ push to reform the criminal justice system, gaining national prominence after she charged police officers in the death of Freddie Gray and instituted progressive changes.

The moves made her a lightning rod for attacks from Republicans and Fox News, but in January criticism was leveled at her from a surprising direction: the Democrat elected to replace her.

Ivan J. Bates told a crowd at his inauguration that crime was soaring in Baltimore and laid part of the blame on Mosby. He planned to get tough and announced he was dropping her signature policy of not prosecuting some low-level crimes, a change aimed at correcting racial disparities in the courts. Bates said it bred disorder.

“Effective right now — this moment and second — I recall that policy,” the state’s attorney said to cheers. “Simply put, my office will start holding people accountable for quality-of-life crimes.”

Bates is part of a growing movement within the Democratic Party pushing a more aggressive line on crime and publicly breaking with some of the reform policies that spread widely across the country after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

A concern about homicides, carjackings and auto theft in some cities is prompting the shift. But there is also disillusionment with some progressive policies and a sense among some officials that Democrats leaned too far left on public safety in recent years, leaving the party politically vulnerable to GOP attacks.

They pitch their stance as a necessary recalibration for liberals, but it is generating a backlash from reform-minded politicians and groups who accuse them of reverting to failed policies that have exploded prison populations and promoted racial inequality.

This new, more muscular approach on crime is playing a central role in the debate over a D.C. criminal code revamp that has become a major political football and the race for mayor in Chicago, but it has also become a force in San Francisco, New York and other cities.

“In the ’90s, we went too far — everybody was [pushing] mass incarceration,” Bates said in an interview. “What we’ve seen here lately is people have gone too far the other way, where we are really afraid to hold people accountable because we are afraid of mass incarceration.”

A new dynamic

The rapid rise of tougher-on-crime Democrats over the past year or so is a surprising development in some deep-blue bastions that were just a short time ago the site of massive protests calling for defunding of police and overhauling the criminal justice system.

A long-running revision of D.C.’s outdated criminal code was swept up into a national debate on crime that engulfed Congress and President Biden in recent weeks, highlighting shifting attitudes among Democrats on public safety.

The D.C. Council approved revisions to the code in February, but Mayor Muriel E. Bowser vetoed the measure in part because it reduced maximum sentences for some offenses at a time when concerns about crime are running high in the District. The Council then overrode Bowser’s veto.

Republicans pounced.

The House and Senate GOP sought to paint Democrats as soft on crime by introducing a measure blocking the criminal code overhaul, but in a sign of the renewed salience of crime and fears about its use as a political cudgel, President Biden and scores of Democrats backed the disapproval measure, including more than 30 in a Senate vote Wednesday. It was the first time in more than 30 years that Congress voted to overturn local D.C. legislation.

Senate votes to block D.C. bill on criminal code revision

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said in a radio interview Thursday it was the right call.

“I think the vast majority of the people in D.C. and the literally hundreds of thousands of Virginians that go to work in D.C. each day don’t want to be going into a community where they are actually lowering the penalty for carjacking when that’s become an epidemic in the city,” Warner said.

In Chicago, where gun violence has spiraled, public safety has been a dominant issue in the mayor’s race. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was criticized for her response to crime and other issues, was the first incumbent to lose an election in 40 years during the first round of voting in late February.

Paul Vallas, a former Chicago schools executive and moderate Democrat, surged to the top of a nine-person field decrying the “utter breakdown of law and order” in the city under Lightfoot. He promised a sweeping plan to fill 1,600 police vacancies, add hundreds of new transit officers and take the “handcuffs” off a demoralized police force.

Vallas did not garner the 50 percent of votes needed to win the election outright, so he will face the second-place finisher in an April runoff election. His rhetoric on public safety displayed a stark new tone for Democrats.

“We’re going to exceed 700 murders for the third year in a row. We’ve now seen our 65th school-age child killed,” Vallas said in December. “Car thefts are averaging a mind-boggling 100 a day. Strong-arm robberies every single day. They pistol-whipped a woman just for amusement. It’s blatant.”

The sense of a city in free fall seemed to resonate with Chicagoans. A recent poll found 71 percent of registered voters listed crime as their top priority, and the vast majority said the city was headed in the wrong direction — results mirrored in other cities suffering post-pandemic malaise.

The April runoff will be viewed nationally as a test of how far Democrats have shifted on public safety. Vallas’s opponent is Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a progressive Democrat who advocates for creating jobs for youth and opening mental health-care centers in lieu of harsher enforcement.

Chicago mayoral candidates have starkly different strategy on crime

Nationwide, the rate of gun deaths rose in 2020 and 2021 to levels not seen since the mid-1990s. Last year, there were glimmers of hope: Homicides declined in cities across the country — including New York, Philadelphia and Indianapolis — while still remaining significantly above pre-pandemic levels. Some major cities are also grappling with jumps in carjackings, auto theft and quality-of-life crimes, though crime rates still remain far below peaks in earlier decades.

Seattle’s mayor recently called public safety a top priority in his state of the city address, and it has become a major issue in the races for mayor in Denver and Philadelphia as well.

Perhaps no city has been whipsawed by changing attitudes on crime as much as San Francisco. Mayor London Breed was one of the first politicians to call for shifting funds away from police following the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

But amid concern about homelessness, drug overdoses and theft, Breed took to the steps of city hall in late 2021 to announce she was increasing police funding, declaring an emergency in the hard-hit Tenderloin district, and putting in place measures to combat shoplifting.

A frustrated Breed said officials would be “less tolerant of all the bulls--- that has destroyed our city.”

San Francisco's Tenderloin a liberal challenge

Last year, San Francisco voters recalled Chesa Boudin, one of the nation’s most liberal district attorneys, amid anger over some of the same issues Breed cited. Breed replaced Boudin in July with a former deputy of his who offered a sharply different vision on criminal justice.

While Boudin emphasized drug decriminalization, the new district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, said in an interview she is going after drug dealers she blames for overdoses, gun violence and addiction that fuels thefts and other street crime.

Jenkins announced she was revoking 30 plea offers to repeat fentanyl dealers made by Boudin. She said she may allow her prosecutors to seek murder charges against fentanyl dealers whose drugs lead to fatal overdoses and will seek pretrial detention for dealers the office believes pose public-safety risks.

Jenkins said she still supports many reforms, but less punitive measures were not working. She said Democrats have ceded the discussion of public safety to Republicans and it was time for a more forceful response.

“We tried the opposite approach with extreme leniency,” Jenkins said. “We see that it got us to a state in San Francisco that was intolerable for residents, for visitors and for business owners.”

In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams has become the most visible face of Democrats’ evolving approach to crime. The former police captain won office in 2021, promising to tackle lawlessness in the nation’s largest city.

During his first year, the New York Police Department brought back controversial anti-gun units that were previously linked to fatal shootings, put more officers in subway stations, and announced a new plan to tackle low-level offenses like public drinking and dice games. He’s pushed to undo bail reforms he blames for exacerbating crime.

The effectiveness of such measures is still an open question. There were 438 homicides in New York City last year, down from 488 the year before. But some other crimes, including assaults and burglaries, have shot up, feeding a sense of unease among some residents.

Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas, who chairs the United States Conference of Mayors Criminal and Social Justice Committee, said he thinks the message of defunding the police has been a disaster for Democrats policy-wise and politically.

He said Republicans have had electoral success tagging Democrats as “defunders” in some races and Republicans hammered Democrats on crime in last year’s midterm elections. Lucas thinks many Democrats are now trying to stake out a new balance that is more responsive to voters’ concerns about public safety.

“I think right now you are seeing many of us who are in leadership try to reclaim a position that is moderate, one where you can have accountability but we can also have our police departments,” Lucas said.

The backlash

But the tougher turn on crime has ignited a backlash.

Bates, the Baltimore prosecutor, swept to victory over Mosby in the July Democratic primary and won the general election in November, promising to make illegal guns his top priority. Baltimore has seen near-record homicide totals each year since Freddie Gray was fatally injured in a police van in 2015.

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Bates supports some less punitive measures, but pledges to seek jail time for anyone caught with an illegal gun and to seek maximum sentences for illegal gun traffickers. He traveled to Maryland’s capital in February to lobby for a bill he pitched that would increase the top sentence for those over 21 convicted of carrying an illegal handgun from three years to five years in prison. He said the current law is not a deterrent.

“In Baltimore city, when you’re weak, they’ll run over you,” Bates said. “I’m not playing. I’m sick and tired of guns.”

But in a sign of how much the politics of crime has shifted, Bates’s idea was applauded by some Republicans, but panned by typical liberal allies and criminal justice reform advocates like the ACLU and early Black Lives Matter supporter DeRay Mckesson, who is from Baltimore.

Heather Warnken, executive director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore, testified against the bill. She said research shows longer sentences do little to deter criminals and the bill would have deleterious effects on overpoliced communities.

Mosby concurred in comments to The Washington Post, saying Bates’s criticisms of her are misguided and his policies have been “tried, tested and failed.”

Both said Bates’s approach generally was a politically expedient appeal to voters’ fears about rising crime, but one that ultimately would take the city backward. Maryland lawmakers have yet to decide on the bill.

Warnken said Baltimore should continue to focus on equity in the justice system.

“This is the muscle memory of this country,” Warnken said. “We are conditioned in American society to immediately associate public safety with policing, prosecution and prison.”

That critique is echoing in other cities. Activists in New York City have compared Adams’s renewed focus on low-level crimes to the infamous “stop and frisk” policy that led police to disproportionately stop Black New Yorkers in the ’90s.

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said in a statement that Jenkins’s crackdown on drug dealers in the city was a throwback of another kind.

“Instead of funneling more money toward policing and bringing back the inhumane and racist war on drugs — which we know from decades of experience didn’t reduce drug use or sale — we should be using our public resources to invest in treatment, housing, job training, education and employment,” Raju said.

Christopher Slobogin, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, said the push-and-pull over criminal justice policy is familiar.

“It’s a dynamic we’ve seen over and over again,” he said. “There’s a push for reform, and it dies on the vine pretty quickly.”

But even though the emphasis is shifting away from reform in some places, Slobogin cautioned against writing an obituary for a movement, spurred by Floyd’s 2020 killing, that still has a strong appeal to voters. He doesn’t foresee a return to the tough-on-crime ’90s.

In recent years, residents have voted to increase police oversight in Cleveland; Akron, Ohio; San Diego; and Long Beach, Calif. The district attorney in San Francisco was recalled, but voters have elected and reelected reform-minded prosecutors in Des Moines, Dallas, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles and San Antonio.

“You don’t need police to deal with people who are mentally ill,” Slobogin said. “You don’t need police to deal with people who are unhoused, the homeless. You don’t need police to deal with traffic violations. Those kinds of ideas have more currency than they’ve ever had before. And despite the pushback, I don’t think they’re dead, by any means.”