Public views on crime and punishment swing like a pendulum from extreme justice on one side to extreme mercy on the other. Like many things these days, the swings are coming faster than ever. Maybe we’re learning our lessons sooner than we used to, but many are things we should have learned long ago.
Whatever the reason, it should be clear by now that the brief swing of the last decade toward less incarceration, shorter sentences, and a general softening on crime is over.
There were plenty of factors that led to the end of the decades-long decline in violent crime, plenty of fodder for the dissertations of future sociology students. But one in particular should be clearly in the crosshairs of public opinion: the 2020 campaign to reduce or eliminate cash bail for offenders accused of violent crimes. As recent events have shown here in Philadelphia, this policy has been a disaster and has led directly to further crimes – including murder – that could have been prevented.
Earlier this year, Latif Williams was arrested and charged with five felonies including carjacking and illegal possession of a firearm. His bail was originally set at $200,000 but, showing once again the quality of Philadelphia’s elected judiciary, Municipal Court Judge Joffie C. Pittman III reduced that figure to zero. Nothing! Williams was given house arrest and unsecured bail – which is no bail at all (he would need to pay if he violated the already lenient terms of his release).
So a judge thinks that people credibly charged with violent crimes should be allowed to go home as long as they pinky-swear that they won’t be bad anymore. That’s bad enough, but a month later, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office couldn’t even manage to get witnesses to show up at Williams’s preliminary hearing, so they withdrew the charges. Between weak judges and inept prosecutors, Philly’s justice system managed to release a violent accused criminal back onto the streets. It didn’t have to happen: each of these failures was a deliberate choice.
The result was a horrific murder. On Sunday, November 28, Samuel Collington, a senior at Temple University, was gunned down in broad daylight in an attempted carjacking. After reviewing video and forensic evidence, a warrant was issued for Williams’s arrest. He turned himself in and this time, at least, the judge decided not to let him out.
Jane Roh, a spokesperson for Krasner’s office, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the July carjacking incident “remains under active investigation, and our office continues to pursue accountability for that crime.” But promises of future investigations do not make up for laxity in enforcing the law in the first place. And the next time Krasner or Mayor Jim Kenney calls for more restrictions on gun ownership, Philadelphians should ask why they routinely let people charged with violating the existing laws walk, as they did in this case.
People have a hard time learning from the past. When crime spiraled out of control in the 1960s and 1970s, politicians eventually wised up and strengthened the laws that had been softened a few decades earlier. Crime dropped and continued to drop for years to come.
Did they go too far at times? Certainly. California’s “three strikes” law was a good idea for keeping repeat offenders behind bars, but prosecutors stretched it to its limits, jailing people for minor crimes under laws meant to prevent major ones. Instead of moderately rewriting the law to avoid abuses like that, over the past few years we have undone large parts of the criminal justice system wholesale. Worse still, much of the change has not come through legislatures changing the laws, but through prosecutors declining to enforce them – refusing to do their jobs.
When we can’t (or won’t) learn from the past, we must be doomed to repeat it. There is a balance to be struck in being “tough on crime,” but that balance must be weighed in favor of the safety of ordinary, law-abiding citizens. We can be reasonable in our laws without being overly lenient. That is a judgment call for our elected officials that has no easy answer.
But those decisions ought to come through the people’s representatives, not through judges who won’t judge and prosecutors who won’t prosecute. Those entrusted with the enforcement of our laws have instead opted for lawlessness. Every crime committed by a repeat offender shows the dangerous folly of that choice.