On Wednesday, President Joe Biden plans to devote his public events “to the issue of crime and how his administration is responding to the uptick in violence,” Politico Playbook reports. Not surprisingly, Politico couldn’t resist framing Americans’ concerns about crime and public safety as a “Republicans pounce” moment: “Violent crime has been spiking across America for more than a year,” the report read. “The issue has been at the top of the GOP agenda and constitutes a major portion of Fox News programming.”
But at least Politico acknowledged that Biden is late in offering presidential leadership on this issue. The serious violent crime spike began last summer and, in some places, the carnage has been impossible to ignore for more than a year, including a steep rise in the number of homicides and shootings in cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. In New York, voters are about to pick a new mayor, and majorities surveyed list crime as their most important concern.
Random stabbings and assaults on residents on the city’s subways have become all too common an occurrence. Horrifying video footage last week captured a gunman on a sidewalk in the Bronx shooting wildly at another man who then knocked over two children who were on their way to buy candy at a nearby bodega. Miraculously, the children were not hit by one of the 12 bullets he fired.
Ten-year-old Justin Wallace was not so lucky. He was killed in Queens in early June in a drive-by shooting. Shootings in the city have increased more than 68 percent in 2021, after a significant increase in 2020. Felony assaults, rapes, and car thefts have also spiked.
Criminals who are arrested often have charges against them dropped or are released back onto the streets without having to post bail. An investigation by NBC4 News in New York reported that prosecutors in the city will not prosecute the majority of the looters who destroyed businesses across the city last summer. Prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office have dropped all but a handful of cases against the perpetrators. Those who are prosecuted are often charged with lesser crimes, like trespassing, which doesn’t involve jail time.
The increase in violent crime can be seen in smaller metropolitan regions as well, including cities like Tucson, New Orleans, Virginia Beach, Memphis, and Portland. Officials in Atlantic City and Washington, D.C. have declared shootings a public health crisis.
As well, brazen acts of looting and property crime go unpunished by progressive prosecutors in places like San Francisco, where a recent video of a thief clearing out shelves in a Walgreen’s store offered the perfect illustration of why Walgreen’s has closed many of its stores there. Whether progressive San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin will actually prosecute the thief remains to be seen, given his pledge not to prosecute “quality of life” crimes like prostitution and public urination—a pledge that has effectively turned over San Francisco’s streets to drug users, the homeless, and the mentally ill.
In other words, there is plenty for Biden to talk about if he wants to talk about crime.
But will he? When he was running for president, Biden distanced himself from his own signature crime legislation—the 1994 Crime Bill—because the progressive wing of the Democratic Party blames it for increasing mass incarceration (even as it has also been praised for contributing to a decline in crime).
If the administration is serious about tackling crime, here are some things it can do:
Denounce violent criminal behavior with the same vigor you denounce “white supremacy.”
In April, Biden spoke to Congress and proclaimed, “White supremacy is terrorism.” He vowed to use the full force of government power to fight domestic terrorists, although he only spoke of white supremacist groups and not the anarchist and “anti-fascist” groups whose violence has increased significantly. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reports that these Antifa-type groups’ “attacks and plots comprised 20% of U.S. terrorist incidents in 2020, an increase from 8% in 2019.”
Speaking in Tulsa in June on the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Biden again described a “through-line” that ran from Tulsa to “what you saw in Charlottesville four years ago” to the January 6 insurrection: “Look around at the various hate crimes against Asian Americans and Jewish Americans,” Biden said. “Hate that never goes away, hate only hides.”
But while denouncing white supremacist hate, Biden strenuously avoided many uncomfortable facts about who is committing many of these violent acts, particularly against Asian-Americans and Jews. Violence against Jews that flared up during the recent conflict in the Middle East was committed largely by men of Middle Eastern descent and African-Americans. And as has long been clear, the overwhelming majority of attacks on Orthodox Jews in New York are committed by blacks, not white supremacists.
If Biden wants to tackle violent crime, he’ll have to start denouncing violence and criminal behavior among non-white populations with as much commitment as he has given to violent extremism among whites. As Heather MacDonald, writing in City Journal earlier this year, noted, “The black incarceration rate is driven by convictions for violent crime—not, as popular lore has it, by convictions for drug offenses; 62 percent of black prisoners in state facilities, which house the vast majority of the nation’s prisoners, were serving time for a violent offense in 2018, compared with 48 percent of white state prisoners.”
Stop using the pandemic as an excuse for failing to do something about increasing crime.
Progressive officials like New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio found COVID a convenient scapegoat for their own inability to keep their cities safe. “It’s clearly related, in part, to the coronavirus and to the fact that people are cooped up,” de Blasio told a reporter. (Property crimes and robbery actually decreased during the pandemic, while violent crime rose).
But if pandemic-related hardships were to blame for violent crime increases, why didn’t such spikes also occur in other countries? Canada saw only a slight increase in homicides, while Mexico and El Salvador experienced decreases in violent crime during the pandemic year, as Zaid Jilani noted.
It’s time for the Biden administration to grapple with some facts that might upset some of its constituents. In particular, the “defund the police” rhetoric promoted by the Black Lives Matter movement and its progressive supporters, which contributed to the dismantling of some of law enforcement’s most effective techniques for preventing crime. Among them, specialized gun control and narcotics units. It’s also long past time to progressive acknowledge that the people who suffer the consequences of the crime spike are living in poorer communities and want more police presence in their neighborhoods, not less.
Call out progressive prosecutors who refuse to enforce the law.
In cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco, progressive prosecutors (many backed by progressive interest groups) are refusing to prosecute low-level crimes and are vacating charges against more violent criminals, returning them to the streets where they continue to attack citizens. This is done in the name of greater “equity” and racial justice, but the effects are clear in the significant crime increases in these cities.
Recently, a public defender writing in the Atlantic criticized progressive prosecutors for not going far enough in their efforts to stop enforcing the law: “Expand the consideration of who should not face criminal punishment beyond those who commit only very low-level offenses. For example, recognize that even more serious crime is driven by people’s circumstances, including mental illness and trauma, and support treatment rather than jail time for those cases.” In other words, violent criminals should be excused from the consequences of their behavior if they can claim they experienced trauma.
If the Biden administration wants to engage in criminal justice reform, it needs to demand proof that progressive proposals like “bail reform” and violence-interruption programs are actually working.
Early in the pandemic, Yale University Law Professor Tracey Meares told a reporter for WBUR that violence would decrease once vaccination became widespread and violence interrupters could once again resume their in-person work. “It requires a great deal of a face-to-face contact, typically, among service providers and the folks who are most likely to both commit these offenses and be the victims of them,” Meares says. “And it’s a lot harder to do that when people can’t meet in person.”
That hasn’t proven true so far. And with violent crime spiraling out of control in some cities, these programs should not be relied upon to stem the tide if they cannot prove their effectiveness.
The Biden Administration’s emphasis on “equity” initiatives comes at a time when the basic safety of this country’s citizens, many of them non-white, is at risk. “Equity” talk allows Biden to avoid confronting some hard truths about the racial disparities in crime commission and crime victimization.
Protecting these communities and finding solutions to the culture of violence are far more urgent criminal justice goals than any “equity” initiatives Biden has proposed thus far. Whether he has the courage to acknowledge that—even at the risk of angering his progressive left flank—remains to be seen.