District Attorney Jason Williams, who pledged to redesign the city’s justice system so that it “equitably serves all people,” is among the busiest public officials in town. With criminal trials having resumed this week after a long Covid-19 hiatus, Williams is personally arguing a murder case. He is also keeping a watchful eye at the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where federal prosecutors are seeking to overturn a ruling issued by the late Judge Martin Feldman that would prohibit them from using information about Williams’ prior tax delinquencies in his upcoming tax fraud trial.
Williams has acknowledged the “lawlessness and cowboy stuff happening on the streets” of New Orleans. Today’s criminal environment, or perhaps a nudge from the Justice Department, has caused Williams to dial back on such campaign promises as quickly addressing hundreds of split jury convictions, not trying juveniles as adults, and reforming what he labeled “the ineffective and unfair money bail system.” The Metropolitan Crime Commission and others uncovered a breakdown in the screening process of those arrested. Through a procedure known as 701 releases, since last June more than 800 individuals were let out of jail after charges were not filed in a timely fashion.
Williams isn’t the only progressive prosecutor whose policies are being challenged. In most urban centers across the country crime is exploding. Top prosecutors who rode in on a mantle of progressivism are quite naturally feeling the heat. Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg took office in January 2022 and quickly announced that he only supported incarceration for individuals convicted of the most serious crimes. A firestorm subsequently ensued. While Bragg campaigned on the need to balance public safety and fairness, his focus shifted to safety after several high profile acts of gun violence, including the shooting of two police officers.
Brooklyn’s progressive prosecutor Eric Gonzalez, currently serving his second term, has learned to balance politics and public safety. Like Williams, Gonzalez also has said that the criminal justice system lacked equity and pledged to bring “a prosecutor’s healing touch.” His plans were upended by a series of grisly crimes that has raised public anxiety and exposed ongoing tension with police. Gonzalez argues that Brooklyn cannot arrest its way out of crime and that citizens perceive “an erosion of public safety.”
When elected in 2019, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin promised to focus on decarceration and addressing root causes of crime. His parents were members of the radical Weather Underground and served time for their roles in a deadly 1981 Brinks armored car robbery. Boudin’s critics strongly believe that his policies have created “a perception of permissiveness that emboldens criminals.” They also claim Boudin has compromised public safety. A recall election has been scheduled for June 7. Like Williams, Boudin wanted to focus resources on violent crimes and murders but expressed concerns that police are unable to make many arrests. “The most effective thing at deterring crime is certainty of arrest,” Boudin told The New York Times. “… People don’t fear consequences. It has nothing to do with my policies.” Boudin also has an uneasy relationship with San Francisco’s men and women in blue.
Another California prosecutor, Los Angeles County district attorney and former police officer George Gascón, is working hard to avoid a recall effort. He has been criticized for eliminating the death penalty and the prosecution of juveniles as adults.
Marilyn Mosby was elected state’s attorney for Baltimore in 2015 as part of the national movement for more progressive prosecutors. Mosby received political backlash from her failure to prosecute crimes such as prostitution and some drug offenses. She has also been indicted on two counts of perjury for allegedly making false statements on loan applications to purchase vacation homes in Florida. Mosby’s federal trial is scheduled to begin on May 2, one month before she faces re-election. Her lawyer A. Scott Bolden claims the charges are “motivated by political and racial animus.”
Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney (district attorney) for Cook County, Illinois, recently said that criminal justice reform should continue rather than reverting to policy solutions based on fear of crime. For the past two years, violence has surged in Chicago, with nearly 800 homicides reported in 2021. Foxx has an uneasy relationship with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and police over her sentencing and bail policies. The village board in Orland Park, a suburb within Foxx’s jurisdiction, called for her resignation earlier this week. “Every day, as a direct result of the state’s attorney’s actions and policies, criminals who should be incarcerated are set free and are committing crimes that could have been presented,” said Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau. In 2021, Foxx said her office approved charges in 86% of felony cases and won convictions 75% of the time.
Since 2018, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner has been fighting “end our addiction to mass incarceration and reform an office that, for too long, let the powerful remain unaccountable,” his campaign website states. Krasner is running for reelection because “a broken criminal justice system can’t be repaired in four years.” Krasner has pledged to hold police officers accountable when they break the law, prompting police union leaders to accuse Krasner of an anti-police agenda.
Not all progressive district attorneys are embattled. In Massachusetts, Rachael Rollins also rode the progressive wave in 2018 to become the Suffolk County (Boston and surrounding suburbs) district attorney. Rollins has said she built bridges between the communities most impacted by crime and members of law enforcement. She also said she focused limited resources on prosecuting and preventing the most serious violent crimes. Overall, crime has decreased in Suffolk County during her tenure. According to Rollins, Boston remains one of the only major cities in the U.S. where violent crime, including homicide, is down. Nominated by President Joseph Biden, Rollins was recently sworn in as the new U.S. attorney for the state of Massachusetts.
Malik Neal, executive director of the Philadelphia Bail Fund, identified a widening gap between the rhetoric of progressive prosecutors and the reality of criminal justice work. “In the midst of a pandemic, when bold, radical change is needed most, too many ‘progressive’ prosecutors have largely not shown up as the heroes some hoped they would be,” Neal said in a New York Times opinion piece.
As long as crime remains at current levels, progressive criminal justice policies may take a backseat to the overarching need to keep citizens safe. At least in New Orleans, the public’s thirst for a tough-on-crime agenda and stronger police presence could continue for the foreseeable future.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at email@example.com.