What are ‘progressive prosecutors,’ why are they under fire?

Elections 2022

(NewsNation) — About 45 miles north of Chicago, Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart is both advocating for the elimination of cash bail and trying to address the rising gun violence in his community,

Lake County has been home to 23 shooting homicides so far in 2022, marking about an 8% increase from the year prior. That’s including the seven people who were killed when a gunman opened fire at a Highland Park July Fourth parade.

“Younger and younger people are getting exposed to getting those risk factors, to their friends who are doing it,” Rinehart said. “We need to find those people who are at risk and in risk and saturate them with services. But I want to be very clear: if people are shooting, then they’re going to prison.”

Reform and rehabilitation-based approaches, like Rinehart’s, can be polarizing and as the midterm election approaches, so-called “progressive prosecutors” and their policies are receiving backlash from lawmakers concerned with swelling crime.

“The truth is that violent criminals are emboldened by soft-on-crime policies and a lack of consequences,” Rep. John Katko (R-NY) wrote in a May guest column in The Hill. “Progressive prosecutors across this country are intentionally disregarding their duties to represent the people and protect our communities. They are disregarding the law and putting criminals back on our streets.”

Proponents say policies like bail reform, diversion programs and specialty courts help tackle socioeconomic disparities within the criminal justice system and better protect communities and victims in the long run.

Critics argue it’s funneling violent offenders back into communities and contributing to rising crime rates in some areas.

Bail reform in particular has been the subject of widespread scrutiny after incidents like one in New York City when a man was released without bail after allegedly sucker-punching an unsuspecting stranger so hard that it put the victim in a coma.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams called for the state legislature to tighten New York’s bail laws for repeat offenders and called the city’s criminal justice system insane, dangerous and harmful.

Gov. Kathy Hochul pushed back saying, it’s hard to draw a connection between crime and New York’s bail law “when crime is up all over the country.”

FBI data show that violent crimes including homicide and aggravated assault have been on an upward trend since about 2018. Other violent crimes such as rape and robbery have been declining for several years.

According to the Council on Criminal Justice, the number of murders across 23 cities included in a July report dropped by 2% in the first half of 2022 compared to the first half of 2021, though it’s still above pre-pandemic levels. It’s worth noting it’s nearly half of what it was about 25 years ago.

Part of the job of a “progressive prosecutor” is to address underlying harm that leads to crime, said Marissa Bluestine, an assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“The way I personally look at it is that somebody who labels themselves as a progressive prosecutor is one who is willing to look at issues in the criminal legal system beyond our traditional law-and-order, cause-and-effect view,” Bluestine said. “Looking more at data, looking at analytics, looking at tools beyond what we understand as the ‘lock-them-up theory,”

Some progressive policies, however, haven’t been in place long enough to collect meaningful data that points one way or the other.

“There’s a visceral, ‘but-I-want-to-feel-safe-in-my-own-community’ aspect to this. And it’s very hard to say to somebody, particularly in a high crime area, no, no, no, you have to be patient and wait for this to play out,” she said.

Two states in particular — Illinois and California — have become focal points in the national debate about progressive prosecutors and criminal justice reform.

In June, San Francisco prosecutor Chesa Boudin was ousted from the district attorney’s office and replaced by Brooke Jenkins.

In Los Angeles, District Attorney George Gascon landed in hot water after a felon released from prison on parole killed a police officer with a firearm. Gascon’s office stood by its handling of the Flores case, telling NewsNation the sentence was “consistent with case resolutions” and adding that Flores did not have a “documented history of violence” at the time.

Organizers didn’t get enough signatures to schedule a recall election against Gascon.

Chicago has become a flashpoint for debate about crime, with criticism aimed at Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker (who is up for re-election) over a law ending cash bail set to take effect in January.

Illinois Republicans have made it a cornerstone of their campaigns, saying such methods will lead to the release of violent offenders.

In Lake County, Rinehart has been a vocal advocate for eliminating cash bail.

He said it’s not that violent criminals in Illinois no longer have to post cash bail — rather, they no longer get to post cash bail.

“We’re gonna hold violent criminals and they’re not going to be able to use cash,” Rinehart said. “…it really focuses the judges on the issue of whether somebody is a danger to the community, not whether their friend, their cousin, or their criminal associate has access to $5,000.”

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