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November 26, 2019

Making the case that "progressive prosecutors" are acting "downright conservative" (and should be embraced conservatives)

Lars Trautman has this notable new Washington Examiner commentary under the headline "The criminal justice reforms pushed by ‘progressive prosecutors' are surprisingly conservative." I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts:

The term “progressive prosecutor” has catapulted into the national consciousness and has dominated discussions about prosecutorial reform that it has become nearly synonymous with the idea of reform itself....  But strip away the “progressive” branding of the policies and the left-leaning personalities advocating on their behalf, and most of these initiatives are not intrinsically left-wing. Indeed, some even look downright conservative.

One of the reforms instituted by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, the poster child of the "progressive prosecutor" movement, provides one particularly emblematic example.  In 2018, Krasner ordered his prosecutors to consider the costs of incarceration associated with each sentencing recommendation. With its potential to deter unnecessarily lengthy sentences, the policy was a natural fit within Krasner’s larger push to fight mass incarceration.  Yet if you remove that description and Krasner’s name, the proposal, framed as an innovative way to extend consideration of taxpayer dollars to government decision-making, looks like something straight out of a fiscal conservative’s playbook.

Nor does it take much imagination to envision even more dramatic “progressive” reforms as part of a conservative prosecutorial platform.

Take, for instance, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s decision to make alternatives to prosecution the default disposition for a host of low-level misdemeanors. This charging policy has appealed to the activist Left as a step toward a fairer, more restrained criminal justice system.  Yet with its redirection of scarce government enforcement resources to the pursuit of more serious offenses, a prosecutor could just as easily promote the policy as an effort to enhance government efficiency and improve public safety, two hallmarks of traditional conservatism.

Although no national movement or label as powerful as that of the “progressive prosecutor” has coalesced on the political Right, the handful of Republicans bucking aspects of the traditional prosecutorial paradigm shows that the potential for other conservatives to do so is not purely theoretical.

In Florida, for example, State Attorney Melissa Nelson ousted an incumbent in part by stressing the need for reforms geared toward smarter, fairer prosecutions, many of which she has since delivered — including Florida’s first conviction integrity unit.  Likewise, District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson won election in Texas while associating herself with the conservative criminal justice reform movement.  Barry Johnson, another Texas district attorney, explicitly rejected the label “reform” yet nevertheless dismissed hundreds of misdemeanor cases in order to reduce the jail population and save taxpayer money.

Conservatives shouldn't allow these right-leaning reformers to remain somewhat rare examples.  Voters across the ideological spectrum continue to support criminal justice reform by wide margins, and, as the high-profile actions of "progressive prosecutors" show, district attorneys are in a position to deliver real change.  Ceding prosecutorial reform to liberals would put conservatives on the wrong side of an electorate hungry for a break in the status quo.

And while that fate may seem politically attractive to Democrats, they should resist the urge to encourage it.  Attempting to make the liberal vision of prosecutorial reform its only possible manifestation is a recipe for ensuring that it never reaches millions of Americans.  Vast swathes of the country have no interest in anything remotely associated with the phrase “progressive.”  Thus, prosecutorial reform will only reach at least half the country if it has a more conservative cast and bent.  Many of the same policies that reduce mass incarceration also make us safer and save taxpayer money.  Undermining a conservative district attorney because he or she emphasizes the latter is self-limiting to the movement.

November 26, 2019 at 06:17 PM | Permalink


This commentary is a wonderful example of how when identifying a problem, we can also help perpetuate it. Trautman's commentary is entrenched in the partisan labeling game of what is "conservative" vs. "progressive" and Trautman even directly engages with this labeling. For example, Trautman hypothesizes (perhaps rightly so) that "progressive" or "reform" labels will turn voters off to certain candidates who would otherwise be inclined to support the candidate's policies. However, I'm not sure Trautman's branding of "progressive" policies as straight from a "fiscal conservative's playbook" is well articulated. Sure, ideas tying policies to cost-benefit analyses and promoting efficiency and public safety have prominently appeared on conservative platforms, but I would challenge the notion that these ideas are exclusively conservative. Cost-benefit analyses can be politically neutral. They are a tool. How those analyses are used is a better way to assess traditional conservative or progressive policies. For example, using cost-benefit analyses, in conjunction with tax cuts and reduced revenue streams, can yield a smaller government--in line with traditional conservative ideas. Ironically, while Trautman astutely points out that our hyper-polarized society could reject policies not on the merits but by the label, Trautman also helps to perpetuate the labeling game with broad-sweeping labels. And, while I recognize that there is a greater irony in the fact that I'm attempting to also label something with a smaller brush, this whole exercise only illustrates how benefits and costs associated with particular policies should not be labeled. After all, no one owns the right to pursue efficiency. But we do own the responsibility for setting up inefficient systems.

Posted by: TJ Beavers | Dec 2, 2019 3:49:50 PM

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