As William Voegeli deftly points out in his essays “Criminal Negligence” (Summer 2021) and “Crime and the Democrats, Revisited” (Spring 2023), big-city Democrats have long counted on their constituents ignoring the violence and havoc caused by soft-on-crime policies. Progressives have forgotten the narrow but important purpose of the criminal justice system: not to solve all of society’s ills, but simply to hold criminals accountable and seek justice for victims. In too many cities this isn’t happening.
Nonetheless, rather than confront Voegeli’s well-reasoned arguments, many on the left will play coy, as they always do when someone has the temerity to point out why, and how, their policies have failed. Instead, they offer (at least) three variations of excuses and misdirection.
First, progressives urge people not to believe their lying eyes. Crime isn’t as bad as it seems, they say, as they trot out study after questionable study to support their claims. These studies are often methodologically flawed, and when they’re not, they don’t say what the Left claims they do. Given that crime is hyperlocalized, the murder rate in some cities is actually worse today either on a per capita basis (as in St. Louis) or in real terms (as in Philadelphia) than it has ever been before.
Second, many on the left try and pivot away from violent crime to so-called quality of life crimes like shoplifting, drug possession, and prostitution. These crimes, rogue prosecutors claim, can go unenforced without any adverse consequences for their communities. Of course, that’s nonsense. Retail theft alone is a $100 billion per year problem and when essential establishments such as grocery stores and pharmacies close due to rampant theft, it’s often the poorest members of the community who bear the brunt.
Third, and finally, many Democrats on the national stage want to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to crime. They want to appear tough on crime (when politically convenient) but want to appease their radical base at the same time. Voegeli correctly points out that in early 2023, “President Biden announced that he would not veto a congressional resolution that rescinded the Washington, D.C., city council’s criminal code” due to its radical soft-on-crime features, with his veto refusal incensing progressive Democrats in Congress.
But there’s more to the story. Shortly after Congress overrode the D.C. City Council’s radical criminal code, it also overrode a local law that implemented many of the worst aspects of the failed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. In short, it hamstrung police officers, making their jobs more difficult and dangerous. Without much press or fanfare, President Biden did veto this override and allowed the law to go into effect. As a result, D.C.’s local police department faces a staffing crisis that is only likely to worsen in the coming years unless things change.
All that to say, Voegeli’s essential point that where there’s crime there must also be punishment—or more crime will follow—is one that all elected officials and citizens would do well to remember.
This letter originally appeared in the Claremont Review of Books Fall 2023 Correspondence