President Trump boasted in his State of the Union address about the bipartisan success of criminal justice reform, but prosecutors warn those efforts have swung the pendulum too far from the side of public safety.
The First Step Act, heralded as the most important overhaul to criminal justice laws, capped off a wave of local and state laws that eased bail, shortened sentences and reclassified some crimes. The goals were to ease prison overcrowding, reduce costs and make the system more equitable.
But those goals have sometimes introduced a laxity that endangers America especially at the state level, public safety advocates say.
“We don’t need to roll back, we need to get things back in balance,” said Nina Salarno Besselman, president of Crime Victims United of California. “There have been unintended consequences to the reforms, which have swung way too far and caused a serious crime wave in California.”
Ms. Salarno Besselman’s group, which claims about 30,000 members, is a strong proponent of the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2020, which will be on the November ballot in the state and is designed party to “reclassify currently ‘non-violent’ crimes as violent,” and thus “prevent the early release of inmates convicted of these crimes.”
For example, under current law, the rape of an unconscious person is not a violent felony in California, and the seriousness of other crimes such as domestic violence or abuse also have been eased.
The initiative is in response to changes California voters approved in recent years. Some of the champions of those previous measures, such as former Gov. Jerry Brown, are fighting the 2020 proposal, but Ms. Salarno Bessleman says polling indicates the change has wide support.
“There were some needed reforms, but they went too far,” said California Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a veteran of the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office. “I’m all for reform if we do it the right way. But the recidivism rate in our state prisons is 50 percent, and if we let people out and they’re going to recommit crimes, then we still have a problem.”
Mr. Cooper pointed to crimes such as trafficking of children and taking hostages that have been classified as lesser felonies that mean less prison time. While reformers paint the 2020 initiative as reactionary, Mr. Cooper believes that once the facts are spelled out, voters will favor recalibration.
The California concerns have been echoed in New York, where the city and state are grappling with changes to bail laws that went into effect Jan. 1. The 2018 midterms produced a Democratic legislative majority in Albany for the first time in years, and lawmakers promptly changed bail laws that critics said unfairly hurt poor defendants.
Now, judges are banned from setting bail for most defendants charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
“Let’s put it this way: Nobody can really be happy when pre-trial release depends on how much money you have — that’s barbarous,” said Steve Wasserman, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York City. “What we have now may not be perfect, but you can’t be nostalgic for what we had.”
But he acknowledged that “the voice of police and prosecutors needs to be listened to.”
Those voices have risen in opposition to the new rules, which they say puts hardened criminals back on the street quickly.
In a widely discussed op-ed in The New York Times last month, N.Y. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea ripped the bail reform, which he blamed for an uptick in violent crime in the city.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post criticized some criminal justice changes proposed in the District of Columbia last year, editorializing that the moves “suggest that common sense may be losing out to enthusiasm for reform.”
But a direct line between the changes and crime can’t be quickly established. In New York, Mr. Wasserman and others said it is impossible to blame a law that went into effect less than two months ago for a recent crime wave. Even those who consider the changes problematic acknowledged there isn’t enough data yet to draw conclusions.
Yet those conclusions are unlikely to help reform advocates much because recidivism is so high, said Barry Latzer, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“I’m very skeptical about what they’ve done, and if you do these things wrong, then the rules do put public safety at risk,” he told The Washington Times. “The more people you release without any controls, the more risk you have of crime and public safety problems.”
Mr. Latzer says high recidivism rates and widespread failure of former inmates to comply with probation and parole requirements make any criminal justice reform problematic.
“The balance, of course, is ‘where do you want to draw the line?’” Mr. Latzer said. “They want to err on the side of release, but the risk there is not inconsequential. And there I think New York has been really misguided.”
While Mr. Wasserman agreed some degree of recidivism is unavoidable, society is trying to calibrate that.
“It’s hard to find people objective about this, there are debunking studies all over the place and what you wind up with is a war of anecdotes,” he said.
Kenneth Bolton, chairman of the criminal justice department at Southeastern Louisiana University, said more changes are needed and warned against a knee-jerk reaction to what has already been accomplished.
“I believe that decisions and policies made at each level, in each part of the ‘system’ should be based on good, solid data and research rather than on emotions and anecdotes about violence and safety,” he told The Washington Times. “The bipartisan nature of reform is tenuous and can easily splinter, but reform is just beginning and those who favor it must understand that it will be a long process, filled with mistakes, missteps and horrible anecdotes that fire the call for retribution.”
The issue popped up this week in the Georgia Senate race. Some conservative media attacked Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins, who is challenging appointed incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a special election in November, for supposedly pushing extreme criminal justice reform with Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
The two have worked together on criminal justice reform, but they have neither proposed nor suggested new legislation, and the stories this week linked to a 2017 bill the pair sponsored that morphed into the First Step Act.
Mr. Collins’ camp was puzzled by the appearance of the stories and by the many members of the National Republican Senate Committee who retweeted links to them.
“I doubt the president would be amused that the NRSC is attacking one of his signature accomplishments and attacking one of his staunchest supporters,” said Dan McLagan, spokesman for the Collins campaign.
Mr. Trump has made criminal justice reform part of his re-election platform and focused on it in his Super Bowl ad.
The NRSC, which has publicly backed Ms. Loeffler and criticized Mr. Collins’ candidacy, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Proponents of reining in criminal justice reform measures say the focus should be on sensible legislation.
“All of these things are pretty horrific crimes,” Ms. Salarno-Besselman said. “Things just went too far in California and we need to get back to the middle.”
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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