How Criminal-Justice Reform Fell Apart

For a brief period, culminating two summers ago, the United States seemed to be on the verge of a serious rethinking.

A pair of hands gripping red and blue bars
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

A typical way to think about history is as a series of turning points. Sometimes it’s just as useful to think about the moments that looked like turning points and then turned out not to be.

For a brief period, culminating two summers ago, the United States seemed to be on the verge of a serious rethinking of its approach to criminal justice. Years of falling crime had made citizens open to new policies. Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that too many people were in American prisons for too long, and the GOP-led Congress passed the First Step Act, a major reform package that aimed to reduce federal prison sentences, in 2018. A series of police killings of Black people, starting with Michael Brown in 2014, had already brought new attention to the excesses of policing, use of force, and racism.

Then in March 2020, Breonna Taylor died in a police raid gone wrong in Louisville, Kentucky, and in May 2020, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. These deaths galvanized already shifting public sentiment, and inspired the largest protests in American history. Support for Black Lives Matter, disapproval of police, and belief that Black Americans suffer regular discrimination surged, especially among white Americans.

Two years later, those demonstrations look like a high-water mark in the push for reform, not a breakthrough moment. Rising violent-crime rates and changing political circumstances have sapped the demand for change. Many of the most ambitious overhauls considered after Floyd’s murder have been abandoned or reversed. Republicans have soured on the ideas behind the First Step Act. A May poll from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst finds diminished support for BLM and a range of police reforms. Voters even in the most liberal cities have signaled that they want tougher policies on crime. What’s now clear is that the support for criminal-justice reform was a mile wide and an inch deep.

The biggest change is the rise in crime, especially violent crime. For reasons that are still not fully understood, several major categories of crime (but not all) began spiking during the summer of 2020. The jump was correlated with the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns, as well as with the protests. In a Pew Research Center poll in June 2020, just four in 10 Americans viewed violent crime as a very big problem. Today, 54 percent do—and nine in 10 say it’s at least a moderately big problem. (The increase reflects greater concern among white, Black, and Hispanic Americans alike.) Americans were ready to take a chance on reforms as long as they felt safe, but rising crime rates rattled confidence, even though crime nearly everywhere remains far below historical highs.

One of the many victims of this crime wave was the fledgling bipartisan consensus on criminal justice. In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned for president while making false claims about rising crime, but early in his term, he embraced the First Step Act, under the influence of his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose father had been incarcerated. But Trump’s heart never seemed to be in it. After Floyd’s death, he initially condemned police violence, but quickly grasped that unreservedly backing police and warning about crime could be a useful wedge issue in his reelection campaign.

Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent, was unusually well positioned to absorb these political blows. Although his role in passing the 1994 crime bill was a liability in the 2020 Democratic primary, his skepticism of calls to defund the police and long ties with law enforcement helped neutralize Trump’s attacks. They also probably neutralized the reform push once he took office. The White House adopted a hands-off approach as Congress tried and ultimately failed to reach a bipartisan deal on a police-reform bill. Later, when a draft executive order including new national standards and guidelines for policing leaked in January 2022, the White House moved to make nice with law-enforcement groups.

Biden finally signed an executive order yesterday that establishes a database of fired officers, bans chokeholds, and includes some other provisions, but it’s only binding on federal law-enforcement agencies—not the overwhelming majority of the roughly 18,000 police departments in the country. Meanwhile, the issue has become the subject of the normal partisan bickering. “Last fall, Senate Republicans rejected the George Floyd Justice in Policing act,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at a ceremony unveiling the order. “They walked away from their moral obligation to address what caused millions of Americans to walk in the street, the critical need that a coalition of Americans were demanding, were pleading for, in terms of reform and accountability.”

One of the most notable moments in Biden’s first State of the Union address, in March, came when the president said, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them.” Earlier this month, he called on states to spend stimulus money, passed as pandemic relief, on law enforcement. Funding police is not necessarily antithetical to new approaches—Democrats have noted that extra cash can help fund mental-health response programs as an alternative to sworn officers, for example—but Biden’s comments underscore how policy makers have switched their focus from reform to crime-fighting.

One promise of the 2010s reform movement, with strong evidence in some instances, is that citizens could have fairer policing without sacrificing any safety. New York City provided the most celebrated example. Some officials had credited the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policing tactics with turning the once-edgy city into a remarkably safe one. But when the city ended stop-and-frisk under judicial and political pressure, crime continued to drop.

As soon as crime began rising, however, citizens’ appetite for experimentation evaporated. In New York, voters elected a mayor whose major selling point was his experience as a police officer, and who promised a tougher tack on crime—notwithstanding the enigmas around the city’s safety wave. Voters in San Francisco and Los Angeles, who had elected avatars of the “progressive prosecutor” movement in 2019 and 2020, have now launched campaigns to recall them. In San Francisco, the recall vote is June 7, and polling suggests that District Attorney Chesa Boudin will lose. As my colleague Annie Lowrey writes, there is a persuasive argument that Boudin “simply isn’t good at the job,” but the dominant case against him—that he has made the city more dangerous—is questionable; in fact, there’s evidence that his policies might improve safety in the long term, but voters are antsy now. (In another sign of the national mood, Republicans placed demagogic attacks on Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson’s sentencing record at the heart of her confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court this spring.)

Voters have rejected or reversed changes to police departments too. Although Los Angeles and Portland embarked on high-profile reductions in police budgets in 2020, both cities restored and increased funding in the face of rising murder rates. In Minneapolis, voters not only rejected a poorly thought-out proposal to replace the existing department with a new Department of Public Safety, but also ejected two incumbent city-council members who backed it. In Atlanta, city leaders who were quick to fire a reform-minded chief of police also forged ahead on a plan to build a massive police-training facility derided by activists as “Cop City.”

Reformists have not been stopped everywhere. Austin embarked on a full overhaul of its department and police academy that has attracted national attention (and escaped punishment from state lawmakers, so far). Many cities, such as Durham, North Carolina, are experimenting with new alternative-response programs. Larry Krasner, the progressive prosecutor in Philadelphia, survived a reelection campaign against a rival backed by police unions. Overall, however, there is no question that reform momentum has ebbed.

A continued retreat from reform is not certain. If crime levels off or drops, perhaps Americans will be ready to consider reform again. Maybe another horrific case like Floyd’s will reawaken anger, though the successful prosecution of officers involved in his death might give the impression that sufficient accountability exists. But as I warned when Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in April 2021, individual prosecutions remain too rare and too narrow to produce serious shifts in the American system. Another danger is that a return of brutal policing tactics will drive down crime. The Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey has argued that now-abandoned methods can be effective at reducing crime, but unsustainably and at a great cost in justice. That means tough-on-crime tactics now might “work,” as measured in numbers, but wound the nation.

Beyond policing, major overhauls to the justice system, such as reducing the world’s highest incarceration rate, would require citizens to accept less punitive approaches, such as allowing even people guilty of heinous crimes to eventually leave prison, as the journalist Adam Gopnik has written. The speed with which the national mood shifted from more incremental reforms back toward increased security doesn’t suggest that the American people are anywhere near prepared to take those steps.