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Democratic Shifts Against Reform Back Tough-on-Crime Moves

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

A growing movement in the Democratic Party is pushing a more aggressive line on crime and publicly breaking with some of the reform policies that spread widely 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. 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.


Advocates pitch their new 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, reports the Washington Post.


Former Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby was a leading voice in the 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. In January criticism came from a surprising direction: the Democrat elected to replace her.


Ivan 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 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.”

This new, more muscular approach on crime is playing a central role in the debate over a Washington, D.C., criminal code revamp that has become a major political football and the race for mayor in Chicago. 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.”


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 the site of massive protests calling for defunding of police and overhauling the criminal justice system.


In opposing the Washington, D.C., criminal code revision, "What Biden is doing is he’s speaking for not just the majority of people but the majority of Democrats in a lot of places that are affected by crime including D.C.” Jim Kessler of Third Way, a centrist-left think tank told The Hill.


According to a Reuters/Ipsos survey released last week, crime and corruption ranked as the second most important issue to respondents, behind the economy.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said the rejection of D.C.'s proposed criminal code 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.

The April mayoral runoff in Chicago will be viewed nationally as a test of how far Democrats have shifted on public safety. Tough-on-crime candidate Paul 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.


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