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The Record-Breaking Homicide Wave in Philadelphia
And the progressive policies behind the crisis
People on the left and on the right may always disagree about how to fix crime, but they shouldn’t disagree about basic facts, like how much crime is actually occurring. Yet, it seems that certain sectors of the left simply cannot stomach the idea that their efforts to defund the police and abolish prisons are contributing to record increases in violent crime across the country. Rather than face facts and rethink their policies, many on the left prefer to deny the problem altogether.
The sad irony is that the vast majority of those harmed by this crime wave belong to the very constituency around which so many progressive officials have organized their political strategy: black people. These officials promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in government, schools, and businesses, but anyone trying to survive and flourish in the rougher sections of Chicago or Philadelphia is apparently out of luck.
This week, I’m presenting a report on this state of affairs from the journalist Rav Arora. You may remember Rav from our recent conversation on The Glenn Show, where we discussed crime and policing, among other subjects. He’s also published in venues like City Journal, the New York Post, and Quillette. Here, Rav writes about the astronomical homicide rate in Philadelphia and the progressive policies of D.A. Larry Krasner that, Rav argues, have done little to improve the situation and much to make it worse.
It’s a sobering, occasionally angering piece. Rav is spotlighting the stories that many media organizations are working overtime to ignore. You can read his coverage of post-George Floyd crime in Minneapolis here and here. You can also subscribe to his new Substack newsletter, Noble Truths, where he’ll be exploring spirituality, mindfulness meditation, and psychedelics. You can also find him on Twitter. He’s an important young voice, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from him.
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Rising Violence in Philadelphia
by Rav Arora
Violence denialism has become one of the worst rhetorical impulses on the progressive left. The left’s failure to acknowledge the traumatizing effects of violent crime breeds greater sympathy for offenders than for their victims, leading to dangerously misguided policies that reduce the prison population without considering their impact on the broader society.
Last week, Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, a prominent criminal justice reform advocate, generated blistering backlash after explicitly dismissing the recent explosion of violent crime in his city:
“We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime, we don’t have a crisis of violence,” the district attorney told reporters at a Monday press conference when asked if tourists are safe to travel to Philadelphia for the holidays. “It’s important that we don’t let this become mushy and bleed into the notion that there is some kind of big spike in crime.”
The crime stats tell a different story. As of Saturday night, the city tallied 535 homicides, shattering its record 500 homicides set in 1990, the height of the crack epidemic. This summer, the city reached another grim milestone: Philadelphia had the highest murder rate per capita of the country’s 10 largest cities.
Though progressive politicians dismiss growing crime concerns as right-wing “hysteria,” the homicide toll is nearly impossible to exaggerate. More people have died by homicide in Philadelphia in 2021 than in 2014 (248) and 2015 (280) combined. Moreover, the racial inequality in homicide victimization is striking: though black Americans comprise only 41.5% of Philadelphia’s population, they account for 85% of the city’s homicide victims.
Krasner should publicly apologize to the 521 families of dead victims and the thousands of those maimed by gun wounds this year. He has ignored the pain of the living and insulted the memory of the dead.
Krasner portrays himself as the Great White Hope for Philadelphia’s Black and brown communities, but if he actually cared about us, he’d understand that the homicide crisis is what is plaguing us the most.
After generating blistering transpartisan backlash, Krasner walked back his “inarticulate” remarks days later, alleging that he was quoted out of context. Regardless, it takes remarkable gall to utter the words “we don’t have a crisis of violence,” given the spiraling gang violence across the most underdeveloped parts of the city.
The recent stories of violence in Philadelphia are harrowing. They sound more like horror stories from a war-torn third-world country rather than reports from a major American city.
After a suspected social media beef, two gunmen fired 18 bullets into 14-year-old Samir Jefferson at a bus stop in Feltonville last month. On November 21, a 7-months-pregnant woman was fatally shot in the head and stomach after unloading gifts from her car at her own baby shower. She was pronounced dead 30 minutes after arriving at the hospital. Her unborn child was pronounced dead the next morning. The tragic loss of life and drowning of innocence on the streets may be ignored by the media, but their screams don't go unrecognized in the city.
Last week, Philadelphia public school students and community groups held an anti-gun violence rally outside City Hall. “I personally have had multiple friends shot,” high school student Kareem Gordon said. “Walking home from practice, walk to the store, just being a kid basically.”
Local public officials are also alarmed by the violence in the city. “I’m not an emotional person…but please stop killing each other,” Philadelphia City Council President Darell Clarke said at a recent press conference.
These earnest pleas seem futile as Philadelphia’s criminal justice system threatens to break down entirely. The police department hemorrhaged close to three hundred officers in the wake of the George Floyd protests and riots last year, with a dramatic rise in officers filing for retirement or PTSD leave.
In addition, police behavior in Philadelphia has radically shifted in the wake of widespread anti-police sentiment prompted by George Floyd and the local, riot-inducing police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. last year. As Paul Cassell demonstrates in his noteworthy paper on the nationwide “Minneapolis Effect,” Philadelphia was one of several cities that saw a sharp decline in proactive policing following anti-police demonstrations. Data on traffic stops shows a precipitous, unrecovered drop after the start of post-Floyd riots and protests in 2020 (the first drop in March is due to the pandemic). Moreover, the department has struggled to find new recruits, due in part to new requirements, such as officers having to live within the city limits.
Though dismissing the link between crime and police has become a new trend among the progressive left, an overwhelming body of criminology literature shows that reducing law enforcement in high-crime areas leads to spikes in crime. A paper published earlier this year by economist Sarit Weisburd in The Review of Economics and Statistics found a “10% decrease in police presence at [a] location results in a 7% increase in crime.”
While both police staffing and activity have reached all-time lows in the city, the mayor's office has done nothing of significance to remedy or address the problem. In April, Mayor Jim Kenney bizarrely froze the police budget despite last year's 30-year-high homicide toll, yet he increased funding for education, libraries, economic development. Compared to 2016, police funding has decreased 2.6% as a share of the city’s general budget, despite a 67% higher homicide toll than in 2016.
Law enforcement in the city is dangerously depleted, but even more concerning are the de-prosecution efforts led by Krasner. These policies often render the police ineffective, as arrestees are swiftly released back to the streets. As former mayor Michael Nutter wrote in his op-ed, Krasner has consistently reduced or dropped charges for violent offenders, pursuing low bail or no bail, as well as minimal prison sentences.
Early this year, 25-year-old Milan Loncar was robbed and shot when walking his dog in Brewerytown. The alleged assailant, Josephus Davis, had two open felony cases, including armed kidnapping, but was still on the streets because his bail was reduced from $200,000 to $12,000, according to Philadelphia police inspector Derrick Wood. A headline in CBS Philadelphia reads, "Some Questioning Why Josephus Davis, Suspect Accused Of Killing Milan Loncar, Was Allowed Out On Bail Last Year."
This question remains unanswered, but the decarceration movement sees every man released from prison as a win, no matter the cost.
Krasner's prosecutorial approach continues to wreak havoc on the city. Earlier this month, Philadelphia police identified Latif Williams as a suspect in the murder of Temple University undergraduate student Samuel Collington (Williams later turned himself in). Williams was arrested earlier this year for a gunpoint carjacking and was facing several charges in the incident, including robbery, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm by a minor. However, the D.A. later withdrew all eight charges after a continuance when a key witness failed to appear in court.
Krasner has repeatedly seized on such opportunities in cases to release violent offenders as part of his racial equity agenda. Some of the animating principles behind the broad criminal justice reform movement are compelling. Prison cannot heal the deep, multi-generational psychological traumas that lead to criminal behavior. Even the most violent criminals must be dealt with compassionately, as many are brought up in single-parent homes devoid of moral education and educated in dysfunctional schools (85% of young men in prison come from fatherless homes). Krasner has lowered Philadelphia's prison population by more than 30 percent, largely due to dropping drug possession charges for offenders who agree to enter treatment for substance abuse instead.
It’s a sensible idea but a poorly defined policy. Krasner's compassion-driven approach to criminal justice suffers from a lack of consequences. Treating drug offenders and preventing recidivism requires an incentivized carrot-and-stick approach. As left-wing publication The Appeal notes, “treatment” in Krasner's get-out-of-jail-free policy is defined far too loosely:
The office defines treatment broadly, and does not require the recovery program to be court-monitored. Attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting would suffice for someone caught with cocaine, for example, and such meetings are free and widely offered in the city. The office also does not wait to see if the person successfully completes the program before dismissing the case, a marked contrast with drug courts.
There is a difference between incentivizing addicts to get treatment and handing hardened criminals a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is neither compassionate nor equitable to release drug dealers and violent felons back on the streets to victimize innocent people and cultivate the next generation of career criminals.
Though progressives often assume otherwise, we don't have a comprehensive, scalable program or intervention to effectively contain and rehabilitate felons. While increasing high school graduation rates and utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) programs, for example, have shown great promise in helping reduce rates of criminal offending, they cannot yet effectively deter violent crime the way law enforcement is equipped to. For all its many flaws, the police and prison system remains the only currently available means to protect society from the worst forms of victimization.
A dysfunctional criminal justice system releasing violent offenders back on the streets not only results in a higher homicide toll, but hinders the human potential of vulnerable youth. A body of research shows that nearby street violence causes children to sleep less, to suffer from increased anxiety and impaired impulse control, and to substantially lower cognitive performance on standardized tests. Neighborhood violence has also shown to be associated with decreased telomere lengths and disrupted cortisol patterns in children. Like the Covid-19 pandemic, urban violence is a public health crisis.
Culturally speaking, the more that impressionable youth are surrounded by gang members, the fewer chances they’ll have to transcend their environment and actualize their human potential. Seeing the criminal justice system fail to hold criminals responsible for their actions sends all the wrong incentive signals to the next generation. Refusing to acknowledge the devastating consequences of violent crime and shape public policy accordingly is not compassionate. It is a failure to grapple with the complex dynamics of human behavior, one that threatens to send cities like Philadelphia into a downward spiral of violence and disorder from which they may never recover.
Journalist Rav Arora is pioneering a new Substack publication, Noble Truths, exploring spirituality, mindfulness meditation, and psychedelics. He is seeking paid subscribers to help fund his new journalistic project: independent, investigative research into the growing industry of psychedelic-assisted therapy. You can read his previous noteworthy coverage on rising violence in Minneapolis here and here.