Too many Democrats have gone soft on crime

By Matthew Gagnon

Over the last several years, a very interesting phenomenon has developed within the Democratic Party. Thirty years ago, America’s left-of-center party had made a calculated decision that it needed to move to the middle on issues like economics and crime in order to appeal to the broad base of voters, and start winning elections again after being dominated by Ronald Reagan’s coalition throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. As a result, the party adopted a more free-market philosophy, as well as a tough on crime posture that promised to clean up America’s streets.

No one epitomized this shift better than President Bill Clinton. Throughout his two terms in office, he was constantly co-opting right-wing talking points on both subjects, at one point in 1996 declaring that “the era of Big Government is over,” and frequently calling for putting more police on America’s streets, something crystalized in his initiation of the COPS program, which famously added 100,000 police nationwide to help fight crime. 

Flash forward to today, and that era of political triangulation is apparently now over. What was once a strength of the party 30 years ago is seen, at least by some inside the Democratic Party, as a weakness. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, many progressive voices and leaders began articulating an anti-policing agenda, and began arguing against incarceration. Several prosecutors were elected on (and pursued) anti-incarceration platforms, which made clear a progressive philosophy on crime and how different it was from recent political history on the left.

Indeed, President Joe Biden, when running for president, was actually internally attacked over his prior “tough on time” stances, and his vociferous support of the 1994 crime bill, which progressives now view as instituting an era of “mass incarceration,” was seen as a major liability

Here in Maine, this shift in political winds was made clear as LD 2246 was debated this week, ultimately being passed 74-61 in the Maine House in a party-line vote. The bill seeks to dismantle Maine’s three strikes law for theft, which introduces the possibility of Class C felony charges on individuals who continually commit theft. 

Proponents, including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Sinclair, a Democrat, say that the current law disproportionately punishes minor offenders and should be changed. “What this legislation does is seek to make sure that we are imposing the worst outcomes on those who actually commit the worst offenses,” he said. “Someone who is labeled a felon after a felony conviction suffers lifelong outcomes. … Petty theft — even repetitive petty theft — is not one of those worst offenses.”

This perspective, while I believe to be well-intentioned, overlooks the cumulative impact of such crimes on society and the implicit message it sends about the consequences of repeated unlawful behavior.

There is, of course, the typical deterrent argument. The current law is intended to be a clear psychological deterrent against the escalation and continuation of criminal behavior. The threat of a felony charge for a third offense serves not only as a punishment to get the reoffender off the streets and away from the public they are harming, but it is also a pivotal moment for intervention by prosecutors, making use of the potential for higher penalties to pressure these individuals into compromise solutions that may help rehabilitate them. 

We certainly have seen the consequences of anti-incarceration, softer policies against things like theft in several cities in the United States recently. The most famous example, of course, is in the San Francisco area, where prosecutorial policies have led to a major rise in “smash and grab” crime, and a surge in petty theft, ultimately leading to a rebellion by voters who recently ousted a district attorney responsible for a lighter approach. 

But the bigger problem with the argument is simply the minimization of the crime of petty theft overall. It overlooks the significant burden that theft places on individuals and small businesses in Maine, where a loss of $500 can have profound implications that can be devastating. Theft, in any form, is a violation of the property and security of the individual victim, and particularly in the poorer, more rural parts of Maine that amount can crush people who are barely getting by. 

To dilute the consequences of repeated theft, even petty theft, is to undermine the social contract emboldening those who would seek to exploit the leniency of the law for their gain. And anyone who votes in favor of a bill like this is risking an enormous backlash with voters this fall.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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