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Recalling the DA Won't Do Anything
Waste of time initiatives like recalling Pamela Price won't reverse Oakland's multi-year crime wave.
Oakland is experiencing a crime wave, there’s no question about it. 70% of Oakland voters feel more unsafe and just 3% feel safer than they did a few years ago, a bleak record. Pundits, news, community organizations and even the NAACP have been blaming Pamela Price, the current Alameda County district attorney, for her allegedly soft-on-crime policies fueling unrest in Oakland. A small coalition of Asian business owners, grieving Black mothers and a Piedmonter have started a recall initiative of the district attorney just six months into her four year term.
Pamela Price has certainly made baffling communication blunders, particularly to the Asian communities in a similar fashion Chesa Boudin did at the start of his term. She should’ve hired various Asian-language speakers on day 1 to do communications on Asian social media apps and publications, particularly if she was paying close attention to the Chinese-language information bubble that finished off Boudin.
But Pamela Price ran on a clear campaign of reducing weapons and gang enhancements which extend prison time, not charging children as adults, and prosecuting police officers who kill suspects without legal justification. In addition to standard prosecutorial duties. Thus, the recall campaign’s main charge against Price proclaims:
She is wilfully fomenting a culture of violence that serves criminals, instead of cracking down on crime to keep violent criminals off our streets.
There’s no evidence provided that Pamela Price is letting out criminals who will re-offend. There’s no evidence suggesting that Price’s policies have in any way inflamed Oakland’s crime wave through cultural or legal changes. Frankly, most criminals are neither educated or smart, so the idea they’re reading the sentencing nuances of a district attorney’s platform 99% can’t even name is absurd.
Oaklanders feeling of unsafe has been increasing since 2018, which tracks around the time violent crime stopped falling. The totality of polling data from November 2009 to October 2022 up above occurred under former D.A. Nancy O’Malley in its entirety. That includes the current crime wave and the one during Occupy Oakland. Yet she was wholly absent in Oakland’s crime coverage by media outlets because she was not a progressive reformer who could be blamed.
It’s as if supporters of punitive prosecutions from San Francisco who promised safety with the recall of Boudin and have so far failed to deliver — San Francisco is even more dangerous than it was under Boudin — have gotten bored with S.F. and now plays the same script in the East Bay. But the other problem aside from the timing of Price’s tenure and the crime wave is that Oakland isn’t a city and county like San Francisco.
There’s a dozen cities in Alameda County and Oakland’s population only comprises 25% of it. I’m living in Fremont right now, and crime is very low in Southern Alameda County. I don’t see any evidence about major crime increases in the Dublin / Livermore area. Berkeley hasn’t even had a homicide yet compared to three last year, and violence on Alameda island is down with only property crimes up.
The crime wave is primarily an Oakland problem, not an Alameda County-wide problem. So it’s unclear why Pamela Price, whose reforms impact the whole county, should be blamed for one city’s crime problems. Or how some of Oakland’s most prolific crimes, such as the shooting of baby Jasper Wu or young woman Alicia Morris on the freeways, is implicitly Price’s fault in the form of cultural shifts when they pre-date her taking office by years.
Its quite cynical to use the brand new D.A. and the relatively short lived “Defund the Police” movement by news media and pro-punitive supporters for longstanding issues in Oakland. Oakland did not attempt to abolish or defund the police nor is and was the city run by its proponents. The budget for Oakland PD was never cut at any time between 2019 and 2022 and has increased 18% since 2019.
Nor do I buy the “anti-police sentiment harming police morale” claim the NAACP charged, because cutting the number of police in OPD was never close to a majority opinion. Everybody knew that, even at the height of the George Floyd protests and Defund the Police campaigns. Only 27% of Oaklanders in the 2020 voter poll thought the number of cops on the force should be reduced. Black voters the least of all races to support it at 10%. Support was highest mostly in the two council districts between West Oakland and Eastlake wheres there’s lots of young, newcomer leftists, and longtime police abolition activists, but that was it.
A year later, support for reducing the number of cops in Oakland shrunk to 16% of voters. As of the latest 2022 poll, only 10% want fewer cops, while outright increasing the police force jumped from 29% in 2020 to 59% in 2022. Totalling 78% of Oakland voters who want the police force kept the same or increased. I’m not convinced OPD’s inability to fight crime today was the product of young people calling into council asking for 50% budgetary cuts that weren’t going to happen back in 2020.
The majority of Oaklanders who vote, especially Black residents in East Oakland, want more cops and have been asking for them for decades. It’s why the NAACP coming out with that anti-crime statement. Which, despite the big news about it, is of no surprise to those knowledgeable of Oakland. The NAACP represents the interests of middle class, politically moderate Black Oaklanders that have been complaining about sideshows, shootouts, gangs and auto thefts rampant in East Oakland for years.
The only part that surprised me was that the NAACP blamed Pamela Price and criminal justice reformers for the crime wave, showing how desperate, but often irrational, people get over increasing crime. We would do well to remember history. Criminology research has long concurred that turning the United States into the world’s largest imprisoned nation had a very modest to absolutely negligible impact on the Great American crime decline of the 1990s and 2000s.
The most strongly evidenced theories for the nation’s crime decline are: the removal of lead from gasoline, data-based (CompStat) police management, and to a more modest extent: per-capita income growth and increased police officers (Brennan, page 49 & 41). There’s debate about abortion impacts, too. However, present in almost every criminology study is that longer sentencing times or harsher prosecutions did little to make the U.S. safer, especially when weighed against the negatives of dampening Black male economic advancement and re-integration into society.
That’s pretty important for these D.A. recalls, motivated by the idea that prosecutorial reformers are letting criminals off with light sentences to commit more terror. Buried well below bombastic headlines on Price’s most controversial cases are revelations such as:
“DA drops enhancement charges after 75-year-old killed in Oakland” which entails giving future parole options to alleged killers still facing life in prison.
“Delonzo Logwood's Shocking 12-Year Sentence” which entails a plea-deal in which a foolish 18 year old, now a repentant 33 year old adult, suspect for murder who has already served 8 years in prison will serve an additional four over manslaughter charges, instead of life. He won’t be charged for additional murders because Price can’t prove he committed two additional murders.
“Jasper Wu killing: Alameda County DA reverses key charging decision by predecessor” which entails giving parole options only after 25 years of prison time to two killers who are liable to be sentenced to prison for life.
Giving lifers parole, which has elicited the most mass outrage at Pamela Price, is the right thing to do. The United States accounts for the vast majority of de-facto and de-jure life sentences on Earth. The United States is the only nation on Earth that hands out life sentences without parole. The European Commission on Human Rights declared parole-free life sentences inhumane years ago. If you seriously think someone’s a threat no matter their age, why keep them alive? Many violent criminals are young men and boys who grow out it. It’s why most civilized nations assure parole for homicide — except the United States.
Regarding Logwood, a sentence amounting to under or at 12 years in prison, is actually closer to the global norm of the developed world for homicide. In the wealthy nation of Norway, a 1st degree murderer usually spends no more than 14 years in prison and it’s 3 - 6 years for second degree. In Japan, a very safe Asian society but a quite strict justice system, homicide has a minimum sentence of 5 years, not the U.S. standard of 25 years. In France, the average homicide sentence is 6 years. I can run down the list of developed nations but the pattern’s obvious.
In the United States, the average sentencing is 40 years for homicide, with the average prisoner fulling about 50% of the sentence. The highest on Earth. That’s what the “hard-on-crime” Price opponents are clamoring for in the aforementioned cases. Yet our nation is considerably more violent than our western peers in Europe, and we have a prison population that’s the largest in the world. Why don’t we learn from foreign nations demonstrably safer than us about alternatives rather than repeat what criminology cannot support?
Pamela Price’s policies of reducing the world’s longest prison sentences aren’t even the radical, left-wing police abolitionist stuff her progressive supporters paint it as. It’s center-left, mildly European-style sentencing based on rehabilitation rather than revenge. And I get it. I have had family and friends murdered in East Oakland. While I have no personal good will to the perpetrators who did it, it’ll only worsen crime once they’re out with a third of their lives gone, and cost me more tax dollars to support them staying in prison, rather to rehabilitate them into non-violent prepared citizens.
The other issue is that Price’s espoused willingness to prosecute cops who behave badly is lowering morale. Honestly, if you think police officers are hindered by the knowledge that their co-workers who commit crimes will be prosecuted, then it’s you who has a low opinion of police, not me. I have a lot more confidence in my police department knowing that good people in the department won’t be hindering by immunity for bad officers who wield the right to coerce and kill without consequence.
It’s quite clear that recall efforts against Pamela Price and the over-the-top criticism is a sadly desperate effort to give people objects for their anger about crime. It is empirically unsupported. It’s wholly emotional. It’s a social media spectacle. It’s an abuse of the recall system trying to game low turnout referendums. But a recall will not only fail to stop Oakland’s crime wave, it’ll train current criminals to be re-offenders as mass incarceration and revenge-based justice does.
The people can’t get Oakland Police, whose clearance rates are abysmal, crime fighting stretched and ineffective, and costs relatively high, to put an end to the crime wave — so Price is a scapegoat. It’s sad too because crime is serious both emotionally and physically. Every time criminals run around and point guns at people, it radicalizes and traumatizes victims. Very few will sit around while carjackers stalk people, gangsters shoot on freeways or thieves bust into struggling businesses and say: “oh it’s a systemic problem, I’ll just endure it.”
People are right to be mad and angry, but we shouldn’t accept false and irrational solutions being offered up out of fear or political convenience. Later this week, I’ll discuss causes and harsh realities of Oakland’s crime wave, and the necessary trifecta of police, community and economics to solve it.
Correction: earlier version posited the legalization of abortion as a prominent cause of crime’s decline. It’s a contentious topic by one prominent study that’s been disputed for its casuality.