“Let’s not abandon our streets,” Joe Biden lectured in his State of the Union last week. But his weak overtures to law and order in the speech rang hollow, as his administration—and just about every other career politician in Washington—sinks deeper into the quagmire of so-called “criminal justice reform.” This soft-on-crime movement is led by activists who don’t care about public safety at all.
After years of crime reduction, American cities have become even more dangerous than they were in the 1980s. Murders are up, along with carjackings, robberies, shoplifting, public violence, and vandalism. Some progressives have tried to manipulate statistics and “contextualize” the recent crime surge, but Americans aren’t buying it. We know a policy failure when it’s staring us in the face.
Sadly, this failure has been bipartisan. After decades of “tough on crime” campaigning, during the Obama years, Republicans began crossing the aisle to rethink criminal justice policy for the perceived political benefits. They started small, pushing for an end to mandatory minimum sentences and incremental prison population reduction. They eventually added early release, bail and probation reform, and other progressive policies.
The upshot of these “reforms”? More criminals were released from prison, given lighter sentences, or escaped punishment for their crimes. Several states saved money in their prison budgets. But the resulting anarchy—our current national crime wave of repeat offenders—becomes more apparent every day.
Incidentally, the reform movement’s slogan, “smart on crime,” was coined by Kamala Harris, who ironically came under attack in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries for her background in law enforcement. The lesson: just as with abortion, gun control, and other issues, the progressives who have built their careers pushing radical policies will never be satisfied with moderate changes or centrist leaders. They’ll continue to attack all policing, all sentencing, all incarceration, glorifying the most extreme voices possible in an endless leftward advance.
Too many Republicans have fallen for sloppy arguments from progressives and libertarians pushing this leftist program. Libertarians have argued that “decarceration” would save money and make inroads with minority voters. Progressives try to argue that criminal justice reform will, counter-intuitively, make us safer. But there is no evidence that the cynical policy of releasing criminals back into predominantly black neighborhoods wins the hearts of minority voters who must suffer their presence. And there is strong evidence that many will victimize—even kill—innocents again.
The apogee of misguided bipartisanship on this issue was President Trump’s First Step Act, yet another disastrous initiative pushed by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The legislation, which codified a smorgasbord of soft-on-crime policies, was followed immediately by a series of pardons for felons. These pardons were also brokered by Kushner’s Office of American Innovation, in collaboration with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Sylvester Stallone.
Soon afterward, a 30 percent spike in murders and skyrocketing incidents of other violent crimes saw many Republicans nervously backpedaling. Radio pundit Michael Savage called it “the greatest mistake Trump made, listening to these two leftists telling him to introduce prison reform.” Because the First Step Act purposefully banned recordkeeping on recidivism for any inmates released, it is unknown what its exact impact was on crime—although Bureau of Justice Statistics show that 83 percent of inmates released reoffend within nine years. President Trump himself reportedly said he regretted signing the bill.
Around that time, the COVID-19 pandemic began and, sensing an opportunity, criminal justice reform advocates shifted into overdrive. Supported by Kushner, activist groups pushed for “compassionate” release, reprieve, and commutation of prisoners who were at “special risk” of contracting the virus. Governors, correction departments, local officials, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons scrambled to open prison doors and allow inmates better social distancing. Many of the NGOs that pushed this agenda during the pandemic are funded by leftist billionaire George Soros, who incidentally also funded the election of a new wave of progressive, soft-on-crime district attorneys and prosecutors whose policies fuel the crime wave.
The 2020 race riots that followed pandemic lockdowns showed the nation what soft-on-crime looks like in practice. The “Defund the Police” movement was just the tip of the iceberg: bail funds for violent criminals, exemptions from prosecution for crimes like shoplifting and looting, and dropped charges emboldened criminal antagonism. Meanwhile, Americans who defended themselves or their property during the riots found themselves embroiled in punitive lawfare.
Only by restoring a humane—not humanitarian—philosophy of justice can we take back our streets, as Biden claims to want to do. Imprisonment is about consistent punishments for crime, not subjective “rehabilitation” or social justice. There’s nothing compassionate about going easy on felons, because every crime has victims. Republicans must become the champions of public safety again and stop pandering to the fad of criminal justice reform.