This story was co-written with Matt Ferner
The data is clear: America is getting safer. By 2016, the crime rate had fallen to half of what it was in 1990. Equally clear is that what works best for public safety is less incarceration, not more. Reducing incarceration reduces crime. Not only does locking up more people have zero impact on violent crime, but it may increase criminality by destroying community ties and social bonds. Nevertheless, we remain plagued by law-and-order extremists intent on misleading the public about what makes us safer while abdicating their duty to protect us from corruption. Across the country, these anti-reform zealots have brought a toxic combination of protecting the powerful and turning a blind eye to abuses of their most vulnerable constituents, while insisting that America needs more punitive policies to fight an imaginary rising tide of crime.
Take California, a state that has engaged in seven years of landmark reforms that have yielded the third-lowest crime rate in the state’s history. In spite of this tremendous achievement, California Assemblymember Jim Cooper, a former sheriff’s deputy, has been on a campaign to spread misinformation and roll back these highly effective measures. Cooper has presented himself as a law-and-order protector of the people, but his personal history suggests a complete inability to protect the vulnerable or hold powerful interests accountable: Years of news reports and even grand jury testimony document a shocking history of sexual harassment and abuse, corrupt self-dealing, nepotism, and a reputation for being beholden to special interests and corporate backers. Indeed, Cooper’s financial ties to the bail industry were linked to his opposition to ending cash bail in California, for which he has been repeatedly thanked by those whose livelihoods are tied to this unfair and ineffective system.
Californians aren’t the only ones dealing with powerful officials undermining smart reforms. There’s Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery in Arizona, who has been the single biggest impediment to Arizona’s ability to pass meaningful criminal justice reform. This top prosecutor, who presents himself as a middle-of-the-road expert on criminal justice, is actually a marijuana-obsessed extremist who became notorious for arresting medical marijuana patients and aligning himself with individuals tied to hate groups. While prosecutors in other jurisdictions tend to use TASC drug-diversion courts for severe cases of addiction (often to opiates or crack cocaine), Montgomery has managed to collect $15 million for his own office by referring people to TASC, about three-quarters of whom were just facing marijuana charges. But this desire for harsh enforcement is highly selective: Montgomery enables sexual harassment and prosecutorial misconduct at the highest levels in his office, consistently protecting the powerful. He withdrew indictments against Sen. Jeff Flake’s son and daughter-in-law in an animal cruelty case, drawing criticism even from Joe Arpaio, who said the couple should be indicted. A prosecutor in his office posted online that defendants with access to him get better treatment. From 2011 to 2016, 13 people who supervised inmates were charged with felony sex crimes in prison; all of them got plea deals that included no jail time. Two rape victims accused Montgomery of giving preferential treatment to attackers.
In the South, there’s Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has followed Cooper’s pattern of fighting tooth and nail against positive reform, reacting to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ landmark reduction of the Louisiana prison population with a campaign of fearmongering. Interestingly, Landry has claimed broad authority to prosecute the vulnerable, embarking on an ill-fated effort to intervene in municipal law enforcement and going after sanctuary cities, yet has claimed utter helplessness when it comes to confronting the powerful. He famously refused to charge officers for shooting Alton Sterling in the back; claimed he had no authority to prosecute sex abuse in the church; fought to shield the oil and gas industry from liability; publicly argued on behalf of predatory lenders; and claimed that nondiscrimination laws protecting transgender youth enable child predators.
There’s also State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle in Miami, who misled the public in her fight to expand the Marsy’s Law victim rights bill, a provision critics say makes unjust outcomes likelier and bloats the prison population. Meanwhile, her history of letting the powerful off the hook for misconduct is notorious, she has been sued for knowingly prosecuting the innocent, and her failure to prosecute the high-profile scalding death of a mentally ill man somehow resulted in her being appointed to a state panel on mental illness. Fernandez-Rundle protects those she favors, failing to properly react to sexual harassment and battery entirely, but suspending a prosecutor who fought to pursue charges and alert the public in a police shooting he felt wasn’t “clean.” Her protection of the powerful is consistent: in 25 years, she has never filed charges in an on-duty police killing, and has ignored evidence of correctional misconduct, even when a child was beaten to death in custody.
Each of these anti-reformers has demonstrated a total abdication of their responsibility to the public: to protect the vulnerable, to be truthful and transparent, and to hold the powerful accountable. What makes these anti-reform voices most troubling is not the skeletons in their closets, but their continued insistence that we must cling in fear to the outdated and retributive theories of criminal law that have bloated our prison system and created communities in which the powerful are let off the hook and the vulnerable charged, in which homicides go unsolved but broken-windows policing flourishes. These troubled law-enforcement extremists are desperately trying to preserve the unmitigated authority of a hopelessly broken and outdated system. Their policies and practices fly in the face of what research and evidence tells us is true: that we make our communities safer when we help people reform and succeed rather than locking them in a cage and concealing the abuses they suffer thereafter. That transparency can begin to erode systemic bias. That mechanisms to prevent wrongful conviction should be favored over a devotion to the system’s finality. That kids should be treated like kids, that money bail is inherently unfair, that we can treat drug crime like the public health crisis it is and create recovery, not recidivism.
Reform of our criminal legal system is one of the most vital human rights issues faced by Americans today. There is room for disagreement as to how we reshape the broken structure of justice, but the fact remains that, in the face of a wave of reform, crime rates are falling nationwide. We can no longer tolerate leadership that undermines progress and chooses the consolidation and protection of power over the pursuit of justice. Rather than allowing the loudest voices in the anti-reform crusade to dissuade and mislead us, we must look closely at their claims, note their incentives, and choose facts over fear.
Emily Galvin-Almanza, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative, has been a public defender in both California and New York, most recently at The Bronx Defenders, where she spent the last five years as a criminal defense attorney. There, she litigated trial cases and wrote about her work in The Atlantic and Slate, advocating for reform not just on the page but at the New York State Legislature and in testimony to the New York City Council. Prior to joining The Bronx Defenders, Emily was with Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, where she fought for reforms to California’s three-strikes law and represented lifers seeking relief under the reformed law. In addition to her work with The Justice Collaborative, Emily is also the CEO and founder of Partners for Justice, a nonprofit that trains and places college graduates in public defenders’ offices to fight the enmeshed penalties of justice-system involvement, obtain access to vital services, and make low-income community members’ voices heard. Emily was a clerk to the Honorable Thelton Henderson in the Northern District of California, and received her B.A. in English from Harvard University and her J.D. from Stanford Law School.
Matt Ferner, editor in chief at The Appeal, previously worked as a senior reporter for HuffPost, where for nearly a decade he wrote about politics, the criminal justice system, the drug war, police, prosecutors, and mass incarceration around the nation. His reporting has been cited in legal briefs and academic research, has influenced policy, exposed misconduct, and helped lead to investigations of government corruption. Matt obtained a B.A. from the University of Colorado Boulder and an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles.