Organization Trends

How the Soft-on-Crime Sausage Gets Made


In October 2022, the Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic wrote an impassioned defense of the left-wing progressive criminal justice reform movement, claiming there is no clear connection between rising crime rates and the polices of allegedly “soft-on-crime” district attorneys (DAs).

The article provides an . . . interesting . . . argument.

Brownstein concedes, among other things, that

  • National crime rates reversed their downward trend around 2014,
  • Left-wing progressive DAs first became popular in the “mid 2010s,”
  • 20 percent of the country now lives in the jurisdiction of a left-wing progressive DA compared to “essentially none 10 years ago” when crime rates were at an all-time low, and
  • There is “no clear alternative explanation” for rising crime rates besides the proliferation of left-wing progressive DAs.

The very frame of the story seems to undermine its central argument, but Brownstein claims that the anecdotal evidence of correlation is not to be trusted as proof of causation. To back up his claims, Brownstein presents two academic studies that serve as the basis of his entire argument.

Study 1: “The Red State Murder Problem”

One of the studies—conducted by the far-left Third Way, which Brownstein characterizes as a “centrist Democratic group”—claims that Republicans, not left-wing progressives, are responsible for rising crime because “per capita murder rates in 2020 were 40 percent higher in states that voted for Donald Trump.”

Was this study reputable? No, not really.

In fact, the Third Way study had been thoroughly debunked in the left-leaning Washington Post just the day before Brownstein’s article. The study was widely ridiculed because it ignored the obvious fact that almost all “red state murders” happened in Democrat-controlled districts within those states. Discrediting the study’s claims about Missouri, Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute wrote:

Take Missouri. Yes, it voted for Trump. But it is also home to two of the most dangerous U.S. cities—St. Louis and Kansas City—both of which are run by Democrats. Earlier this year, CBS News did an analysis of the “deadliest U.S. cities” using the latest FBI and other crime data. In 2019, it found, St. Louis had the highest murder rate in the nation, with 64.54 murders per 100,000 residents. Kansas City, meanwhile, had the eighth-highest murder rate, with 29.88 murders per 100,000. According to the FBI, the state had about 520 murders in major metropolitan areas that year, 20 in cities outside metropolitan areas, and 28 in nonmetropolitan counties. So, the vast majority of Missouri’s homicides took place in its Democrat-run cities.

The Third Way study was also mocked for trying to claim that high percentage increases in crime in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska were proof that rising crime rates were a Republican-caused problem. As Thiessen highlights, Third Way omitted the fact that these three states saw a combined 75 murders in 2019, fewer than some neighborhoods in Chicago or St. Louis.

Although some basic critical thinking might have told him that the Third Way study was bogus, Brownstein can be forgiven for using it since it had, after all, been debunked just one day before. On top of that, the Third Way study isn’t really the heart of his argument anyway. Perhaps the second study is more trustworthy?

Study 2: Violent Crime and Public Prosecution

The centerpiece of the article was “Violent Crime and Public Prosecution,” a new study by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. The researchers behind the study, Brownstein claimed, had found that “homicides over recent years increased less rapidly in cities with left-wing progressive prosecutors than in those with more traditional district attorneys.”

Unlike the Third Way article, the Munk School article had not been thoroughly debunked when Brownstein’s article was published. In fact, nothing major had yet been written about the study at all because it had been published earlier that same day. Without any significant commentary available to review, a look at the summary of the study can help explain the bare bones of its claims.

For example, the summary aims to score political points by pointing out that “the greatest proportional increase in homicide in 2020 took place in Mesa, Arizona, a city served by a conservative prosecutor.” What it doesn’t mention is that Mesa, a city of over 500,000, saw just 24 total homicides during 2020, which is hardly an indictment of conservative prosecution.

The study’s central claim, as Brownstein writes, is that “from 2015 to 2019, for instance, the study found that murder rates increased in a smaller share of cities with progressive prosecutors (56 percent) than in those with traditional prosecutors (68 percent) or prosecutors who fell in the middle (62 percent).” The data are interesting but not terribly useful because, among other things, they exclude data for 202o, the banner-year for left-wing progressive criminal justice reform. It also doesn’t account for state and local legislation that might affect crime rates. Nor does it consider changes to policing or police budgets. It draws data from only 65 cities and counties in the nation. Additionally, a glance at the data and methodology from the full study reveals that cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and Austin were lumped into the “middle” category.

Later on, the summary presents data from the study that supposedly vindicate the left-wing progressive DAs of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

Kim Foxx, the summary claims, can’t be blamed for Chicago’s staggering 56 percent increase in homicides during 2020 and the continued increases in 2021 because homicides spiked just before she assumed office in 2017 and were decreasing for three years after that until the pandemic began in 2020. What the summary doesn’t mention is that Foxx only announced she would not prosecute most drug offenses in 2020, that she refused to seek charges against people accused of rioting during 2020, and that Illinois passed left-wing progressive criminal justice reform laws in 2021.

Similar excuses were made for Larry Krasner of Philadelphia where the summary claims a combined 57 percent increase in homicides somehow could not be his fault just because the murders were concentrated in August and December. And for George Gascon of Los Angeles County, a 12 percent increase in homicides during his first year was somehow not his fault because murders increased 12 percent at the Los Angeles city center but 41 percent in the outlying county neighborhoods (which were also in his jurisdiction).

The claims made in the summary seem weak or deeply flawed, but time and further examination by experts will tell whether the study holds merit.

Follow the Money

The questionable assertions of the summary and the untested data of the full study are not the only possible problems with Brownstein’s primary source. There is also a disturbing money trail behind the study that suggests potential biases.

As both the Munk School authors and Brownstein admit, the study was commissioned and funded by the Center for American Progress, one of America’s leading left-of-center think tanks and policy-advocacy organizations. This alone is cause for concern, but there’s more.

The lead author, Todd Foglesong, is working as a fellow at the Munk School “In cooperation with the Open Society Foundations” and has been working on “developing a peer-based system of support for government officials that seek to solve persistent problems in criminal justice.”

Open Society Foundations is the private charitable foundation and influence-buying network of the infamous left-wing billionaire George Soros, who is also the number one campaign donor to left-wing progressive DAs. Soros has spent well over $30 million on contributions to left-wing progressive DAs across the country since 2015, and over two-dozen DAs who have received his money are currently in office. It seems notable that at least part of the primary author’s salary is apparently being paid by the largest campaign donor of many of the DAs being studied, but neither Brownstein nor the Munk School study makes any mention of this fact.

In fact, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) website reports that the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy has received $144,265 in OSF grants while the University of Toronto, where the Munk School is housed, has received a combined $2.7 million. The largest of these grants was a $1.3 million grant in 2016 that established the very “peer support system” for criminal justice reform that Foglesong is working on.

Behind the Curtain

This is how the soft-on-crime sausage gets made.

Brownstein’s article, and countless others like it, instruct readers to ignore the evidence of their eyes and ears because “the experts” have arrived at different conclusions. A quick peek under the hood would reveal that “the experts” are either incredibly biased or completely debunked, but most people don’t have the time or patience to look deeper so “the experts” get accepted at face-value.

Meanwhile, on social media and on the streets, activists and protestors assure them that the experts are correct and that a good person would vote for such change. Then, out of nowhere arrive a candidate with heaps of cash (from the same mega-donor who funded the experts) and a platoon of activists to lead the city forward into a new era. When the left-wing progressive is elected and the destruction of their policies is felt, the same experts come forward again to explain that it’s not their fault, the media rushes to report the expert testimony as fact, and the whole process starts over again. Rinse and repeat.

American cities desperately need to break this cycle to escape the continued scourge of left-wing progressive utopian experiments.

Parker Thayer

Parker Thayer is a Investigative Researcher at Capital Research Center. A native of Michigan, he recently graduated from Hillsdale College.
+ More by Parker Thayer