Democrats’ crime focus in final hours of campaign frustrates progressives

By: - November 8, 2022 6:50 am

Gov. Phil Murphy held an election eve press conference Monday to tout his administration’s crackdown on auto thefts. (Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Governor's Office)

New Jersey Democrats have embraced some of progressives’ favorite criminal justice reforms in recent years: slashing the prison population, ending cash bail, and refocusing juvenile justice on rehabilitation instead of punishment.

But they veered off script Monday, when Gov. Phil Murphy announced a crackdown on crime. The issue du jour was car thefts, and Murphy and other Democrats vowed to toughen penalties for repeat offenders, criminalize the possession of break-in tools, and monitor pretrial defendants to foil further thefts.

“We’ve been talking about things that we need to do not only to be tougher on crime, but to broaden the types of crimes that we can prosecute,” Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) said.

It might have seemed like a surprising shift from their usual reform narrative — except for the timing. Monday was Election Day eve, and Republicans have been bashing Democrats nationally for being soft on crime, leaving Democrats scrambling to counter the criticism as they face a potential Republican wave during this year’s midterm elections (polls close Tuesday at 8 p.m.).

It’s a strategy Democrats have embraced across the country as polls continually show voters fear rising crime — even though crime reporting typically is incomplete, outdated, and complex and doesn’t reliably show trends. In New Jersey, Congressional Democrats looking to retain their seats, from Reps. Josh Gottheimer to Mikie Sherrill to Andy Kim, have joined the crime crackdown bandwagon, putting out campaign ads and press releases to announce their support of police. Crime has dominated campaign ads in New Jersey districts that hug Philadelphia and New York City.

It all irks progressives, who say such “reactive” messaging and policy proposals are an approach that has been tried and rejected.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re back to the rhetoric of having a competition on who is tougher on crime,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “We don’t want a repeat of the ’90s tough-on-crime era that led to and fueled the war on drugs and mass incarceration.”

Such an approach also could backfire on politicians from both parties in the long run because it does little to address the root causes of crime, reformers said.

“It’s disappointing that the Democratic Party feels pushed into a corner to be tough on crime — and equating that with locking people up — when they should be talking about being tough on crime by ensuring that there’s more jobs for people in New Jersey, by ensuring that people in New Jersey have quality education and access to health care, by reducing poverty,” said Zellie Thomas, an organizer for Black Lives Matter of Paterson.

“Those are the things that are going to make everyone safer — not locking more people up for stealing cars but getting people who steal cars jobs so they won’t have to ever steal a car again,” Thomas added.

Officials did say Monday they would spend money to help people awaiting trial for car theft who struggle with housing insecurity and mental health challenges, but didn’t discuss details.

Peter Chen, senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, agreed that politicians often “fall into the trap” of increasing enforcement to address crime trends.

“This reactive feeling on issues surrounding crime and criminal justice is going to continue to be a challenge for Democrats, if they don’t embrace solutions that work to actually reduce crime,” Chen said. “That’s the concern in the narratives nationally, this feeling of defense, and when on defense, falling back into these existing positions of: ‘More enforcement must be the answer.’”

Despite car thefts being at “near epidemic levels,” as Murphy put it Monday, they were actually down 12% in October from the same time last year, the governor said. He attributed the drop to beefed-up enforcement implemented since April to reverse the spike.

It’s not clear yet whether Democrats’ anti-crime pitch will work on voters, but it doesn’t sway officials on the other side of the aisle. Sen Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) issued a statement Monday afternoon saying “lawlessness we have seen play out in South Jersey and elsewhere is the result of the Murphy administration’s mind-boggling pro-criminal agenda.”

Most violent crime is down in New Jersey, with 852 shootings and 158 gun-related murders through September this year, compared to 974 shootings and 178 gun-related murders at the same time last year, state police data shows.

Still, politicians from both parties continue to sound the alarm on street crime, with mainstream media gamely playing along, Chen said. That focus disproportionately impacts people of color and ignores other kinds of crime like wage theft, tax evasion, and redlining that can be just as — or more — impactful, Chen and Thomas agreed.

“Think about car theft as opposed to wage theft. One of them receives millions of dollars in license plate-reading cameras, huge enforcement actions, and press conferences,” Chen said. “With wage theft, there is as many dollars, certainly, stolen as the value of the automobiles that are stolen, but it doesn’t receive the same kind of attention, and the people who commit wage theft do not go to prison the way that people who commit car theft do.”

Thomas hopes voters see through all the crime talk.

“They can say ‘we’re tough on crime’ and do all these things to secure a vote, but is that going to be good for the state of New Jersey? The answer is no, especially for marginalized people,” Thomas said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.