How Sacramento’s mass shooting killed the myth of ‘tough-on-crime’ prosecutors | Will Bunch
A mass killing on the turf of an outspoken "tough-on-crime" DA shatters the myth that progressive prosecutors are the cause of rising homicides.
Anne Marie Schubert — the veteran district attorney for Sacramento County, covering California’s capital city — doesn’t quite fit the profile of the perfect guest for the right-wing Fox News Channel, after she ditched the GOP to become an independent during the presidency of Donald Trump. Yet she’s been on the network recently to make a point that’s music to its conservative audience: A spike in America’s murder rate is the fault of the growing number of Democratic so-called “progressive prosecutors” pushing criminal justice reform.
“They want to dismantle the system,” Schubert said on Fox & Friends this January, citing the frequent complaints against reform-minded DAs such as San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, Los Angeles’ George Gascon, and Larry Krasner here in Philadelphia. “You’ve got murderers in prison that are toasting Gascon, celebrating that they’re going to get out of prison early. So these are the types of things that these policies, these prosecutors are doing. We are emboldening criminals to really commit even more crime.”
Yet there was one thing the Fox News hosts failed to ask Schubert during her national TV hit: How well have the “law-and-order” policies of the third-term DA deterred crime in Sacramento? The answer, it turns out, is not much better than in the rest of a nation that’s seen killings rise in tandem with both gun sales and anti-social behavior. Homicides have risen in Sacramento County since the start of the pandemic but especially in the city of Sacramento, which in 2021 saw its highest murder rate in 15 years.
Just over three months into 2022, the realities of America’s recent homicide crisis — as opposed to the political spin — came crashing into downtown Sacramento.
It was the end of a warm Saturday night. The city’s bars had just closed and the streets were packed with people when (police now believe) a fight between members of two rival gangs caused at least five people and maybe more to pull out guns and start firing. When the cacophony of bullets finally stopped, six people lay dead and 12 more were wounded.
The victims were mostly just innocent folks, like 21-year-old Johntaya Alexander, who’d driven downtown to pick up her sister — but instead, her sister witnessed Johntaya’s murder. “She was just beginning her life,” her father John Alexander told the Los Angeles Times, sobbing. “Stop all this senseless shooting.”
But the senseless shootings aren’t stopping. There have been 122 U.S. mass shootings in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive — part of a broader social crisis that includes an overall spike in homicide rates in many cities, but also increases in anti-social behavior like road rage, air rage, and fan violence at sporting events. Even the nation’s top crime experts have struggled for a simple explanation to the phenomenon, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans seeking to retake Congress or win state and local elections from turning crime into a political football.
The right-wing talking points are amplified ceaselessly on Fox News or talk-radio outlets — like Philadelphia’s WPHT, which has branded city crime stories under the heading “Krasnerland” — and are employed from coast-to-coast. They claim that DAs seeking shorter sentences or backing bail reforms are somehow linked to gun violence. In California, Sacramento’s Schubert is running in a three-way race for attorney general by attacking the Democratic incumbent as soft on crime, while Boudin and Gascon face recall drives. In Pennsylvania, Krasner’s overwhelming reelection in 2021 hasn’t stopped statewide GOP gubernatorial candidates from trying to score points by calling for the Philly DA’s impeachment.
There’s just one problem. Despite a gut feeling among conservatives that a new breed of big-city Democratic prosecutors must be the sole cause of a perceived crime wave because they don’t seek to lock as many people up for the longest possible sentence — the approach that gave America the world’s highest incarceration rate — hard evidence supporting that just isn’t there.
“The prosecutor has very little impact on murder rates and shootings,” David Menschel, a criminal defense lawyer in Portland, Ore., who advocates for criminal justice reform and writes frequently on the topic, told me this week. Menschel took to Twitter shortly after the Sacramento shooting to note that DA Schubert’s more traditional approach to locking up criminals and suspects has hardly shielded her jurisdiction from gun violence.
Fordham University law professor John Pfaff recently crunched the numbers for 69 major police departments and noted that the relative share of homicides remained the same from 2019 to 2020 regardless of whether or not that jurisdiction has a progressive prosecutor. A number of the localities that then showed noteworthy declines in their murder rate — Boston, Dallas, St. Louis, and Seattle, among others — have some of the most progressive, reform-minded DAs.
Zoom out a little to focus on policy at state level and you’ll find that Republicans have failed so far to implement an agenda that results in safer streets. Indeed, a new report from the centrist think-tank Third Way found “the five states with the highest murder rates, all Trump-voting states, had rates at least 240% higher than New York’s murder rate and at least 150% higher than California’s.” Perhaps that’s not as surprising as it seems, since conservative states tend to have a more entrenched gun culture, and laws to support it.
In fact, as Menschel and other experts have noted, the data suggesting that a DA’s policies have little to do with who is getting shot and killed in the 2020s is clearly available to anyone who wants to challenge the conventional wisdom. For one thing, prosecutors can’t make any charging decisions until someone is arrested, and currently about 70% of all shootings are going unsolved by police departments.
Part of the problem may be that the current crime wave — tied to record gun sales since the start of the pandemic, often to new buyers — seems to have created a lot of shooters without much prior exposure to the criminal justice system. One Philadelphia City Council study of 100 people arrested for shootings here found that 24% of the arrestees had no prior involvement with the law, and 60% had not been previously convicted of a felony. According to Menschel, would-be shooters might be more motivated by the odds they won’t get arrested than by any actions of prosecutors.
But the real data on gun violence in America has a hard time getting a word in edgewise with the conventional wisdom about criminal justice policy, and not just among Republicans. The 2020 increase in homicides — and a sense that the “defund the police” slogan adopted by some during that year’s protests over the police murder of George Floyd hurt their party at the polls — has led many Democrats to either call for hiring more cops or, in some blue states, undoing reforms aimed at ending or curbing the use of cash bail for suspects.
Yet here, too, the hard evidence defies the public emotion. Indeed, one study out of Boston — where the progressive then-DA Rachael Rollins took office in 2018 pledging to end prosecutions for low-level non-violent offenses like shoplifting or minor drug charges — found the rate of subsequent violent crime was reduced by 64% among those who benefitted from the more lenient policies. In other words, treating these incidents as issues related to things like mental health, addiction, or poverty — rather than as crimes — made Boston safer, not more dangerous.
That, of course, dovetails with the argument that propelled the rise of progressive prosecutors in the first place — that the long-term solution to crime should be more focused on social services and not a return to aggressive, so-called “broken windows” policing, even as New York City and other jurisdictions are doing exactly that. That’s not the conversation we’re likely to hear this fall, amid the campaign scare music and fuzzy TV pictures of allegedly “soft on crime” DAs. Meanwhile, the national heartbreak of gun violence seems to never ease up — even on the streets of cities with tough, old-school prosecutors like Anne Marie Schubert.
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