In cities across the country, rising violent crime rates have spurred polarized political discourse around what truly keeps Americans safe in their communities. Overall violent crime and homicide rates rose significantly in 2020—increasing by 5 percent and nearly 30 percent, respectively. Despite crime data limitations for 2021, multiple sources report a slowing of these troubling trends. Critics of efforts to reform the broken criminal legal system have capitalized on public fears around rising crime to advance the unfounded claims that progressive prosecutors are to blame. But the evidence simply does not back up these accusations.
A new study led by researchers at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto—in collaboration with researchers from Rutgers University, Temple University, Loyola University of Chicago, and University of Missouri, St. Louis—rebuts claims by media outlets and elected officials that progressive prosecutors have caused crime in cities to rise. This comprehensive analysis finds no evidence linking progressive prosecutors to rising homicide rates in major cities during the coronavirus pandemic or prior to it. As researchers, policymakers, and the general public continue to investigate the causes of rising violent crime in recent years, this study contributes to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that progressive prosecution is not among them.
The facts matter when it comes to progressive prosecutors
While there is no uniformly defined criteria for—nor a national registry of—progressive prosecutors, scholars, practitioners, the public have come to recognize them for their commitment to reducing mass incarceration and improving equity and fairness in the criminal legal process. Since the movement to elect progressive prosecutors began gaining support in 2014, these officials have implemented a range of policies that include cash bail reforms, declining to prosecute certain low-level offenses, expanding opportunities for diversion to mental health and substance use disorder services, and establishing conviction review units.
Progressive prosecutors gained significant popularity among those who wanted to see the rollback of the overly punitive tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s, which produced widespread mass incarceration and racial injustice. Advocates and community leaders view progressive prosecutors as key to effectuating commonsense criminal justice reforms needed to move the country forward. However, as concerns about rising violent crime have intensified, some politicians and policymakers have blamed progressive prosecutors. Many academic researchers have since offered evidence that contradict these claims.
Efforts by conservative lawmakers to challenge progressive prosecutors is the latest in a long line of political tactics that distract from the real and complex drivers of crime in the United States.
These accusations have resulted in backlash against progressive prosecutors across the country. In San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D) was recalled from office despite broad public support for the policies that he campaigned on in the first place. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren (D) for his policy positions opposing the criminalization of transgender people, even though those positions where not in conflict with any Florida state law. And the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is seeking to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (D) as a result of rising gun violence in Pennsylvania’s largest city, despite the legislature’s own refusal to strengthen the state’s weak gun laws.
Efforts by conservative lawmakers to challenge progressive prosecutors is the latest in a long line of political tactics that distract from the real and complex drivers of crime in the United States. The recently released study provides new empirical evidence demonstrating that blaming progressive prosecutors for rising crime rates in recent years is misguided.
New research findings
The University of Toronto-led partnership with Rutgers University, Temple University, Loyola University of Chicago, and University of Missouri, St. Louis produced findings from a timely and robust examination of the relationship between progressive prosecutors and violent crime in major cities to date. This three-part study involved an analysis of pooled data from 65 major cities from 2015 to 2019; a statistical regression analysis of crime trends in 23 cities over a 48-month period from 2018 to 2021; and a comparison of homicide rates before and after the election of progressive prosecutors in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
This comprehensive analysis finds no evidence linking progressive prosecutors to rising homicide rates in major cities during the coronavirus pandemic or prior to it.
The study found no evidence that progressive prosecutors caused the increase in homicides before and during the pandemic. Using a definition for three types of prosecutors—progressive, middle, and traditional—relied upon by by a critic of progressive prosecution, the study also found weak evidence linking prosecutors of any type with the change in homicide rates. Below is a summary of the key findings from this important research.
Changes in homicides in 65 major cities
Researchers pooled and analyzed data reported directly to the Major City Chiefs Association by 65 cities with populations greater than 250,000 in order to examine changes in homicide and robbery across cities with progressive, middle, or traditional prosecutors from 2015 to 2019. The analysis found that:
- Cities with progressive prosecutors were less likely to experience an increase in homicides during the study period and experienced smaller increases in homicides than jurisdictions without progressive prosecutors.
- Cities with progressive prosecutors experienced a 43 percent increase in homicides while traditional and middle prosecutors experienced a 55 percent and 53 percent increase, respectively.
- Fewer cities with progressive prosecutors experienced an increase in homicides than those served by traditional or middle prosecutors.
Longitudinal analysis of homicides and larceny
The study examined trends in homicide rates in 23 cities and larceny rates in 24 cities over a 48-month period from 2018 to 2021 through a statistical regression model in order to determine how crime increases in any given month compared with the previous month. Researchers found that:
- After controlling for other variables that may influence crime trends, the type of prosecutor in a jurisdiction did not have an effect on the homicide or larceny rate.
- Increases in crime are not attributable to the presence of progressive prosecutors in these jurisdictions.
Deep dive: Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles
Researchers examined homicide rates before and after the election of progressive prosecutors in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles to assess whether there was a relationship between prosecutorial practices and violent crime. The analysis found that:
- There is no evidence that progressive prosecution is associated with an increase in homicide in Chicago. The year prior to State Attorney Kim Foxx’s (D) election, Chicago experienced a 58 percent increase in homicides. Violent crime in Chicago only increased marginally the first full year of State Attorney Foxx’s first term, and it fell by 15 percent over the subsequent three years. Although—like many other cities—Chicago experienced an increase in homicides in 2020, the increase was smaller than the increase in the year before the city elected a progressive prosecutor.
- The volatile patterns of homicides in Philadelphia could not have been caused by the practices of progressive prosecution. Homicide rates in Philadelphia increased in the four years leading up to District Attorney Larry Krasner’s election in 2017. Immediately following the election, homicide rates dropped, followed by subsequent temporary rate increases, including during the pandemic.
- There is no association between progressive prosecution and changing homicide rates in Los Angeles County. Homicides had been declining in Los Angeles County until 2014, when the homicide rate began to oscillate—and eventually increased in 2019—before District Attorney George Gascón’s (D) election as the county prosecutor in 2020. In 2021, the increase slowed to 12 percent in the city of Los Angeles proper while it increased by 41 percent in the surrounding municipalities of Los Angeles County. These disparate outcomes suggest that there is not a direct relationship between countywide prosecutorial practices and homicide rates.
Violent crime is having real and devastating impacts on communities across the country, particularly communities of color, where resources and opportunities have been disinvested for decades. Rather than looking for real solutions that would make everyone safer, some politicians have taken aim at progressive prosecutors, casting blame where it does not belong. The causes of crime are complex, but one thing is clear: This study finds no evidence linking progressive prosecutors to recent rising crime rates in the major cities studied. Research on progressive prosecution should further investigate the effect their policies may have on the administration of justice, reducing poverty, and increasing the trust in the institution of government.