In the 2020 election, extreme reformers failed miserably. Some House Democrats, such as House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), were furious with the far-left members of their party gaining control of the airwaves and promoting such messages as “Defund the Police” and “End Cash Bail.” They believe this rhetoric cost Democrats many contested congressional seats. In the wake of riots and out of control crime in many urban areas this year, voters sent a message that public safety is a major concern, even in the most liberal areas.
For example, earlier this year, New York had to scale back criminal justice reforms enacted in 2019. At that time, their state legislators passed a measure that eliminated all forms of cash bail for non-violent offenders and forced prosecutors to turn over all evidence within two weeks of arrest.
The result in New York was predictable as repeat offenders released into the community committed horrific crimes. Not only was the public upset, but the prosecutors and police were upset as well. Eventually, the reforms were changed, led by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, both liberal Democrats. Thankfully, cash bail was returned for a variety of crimes, while prosecutors were given over a month to provide their evidence. The new rules went into effect in July of 2020.
In the most liberal state in the nation, California, voters passed a variety of criminal justice reform measures in November. Thus, funding will be shifted from police to social services, oversight of law enforcement will increase, sentences will not be increased for petty crimes and parolees will be given the right to vote. However, on one issue important to extreme reformers, the voters were clear, cash bail, which guarantees that defendants appear in court, will remain.
In a lopsided vote, 56.4% of California voters rejected Proposition 25, which would have ended cash bail and replaced it with an algorithm threat assessment that would determine whether or not a defendant would be a flight risk or show up for court proceedings. This new process would have possibly cost the taxpayers of California hundreds of millions of dollars to implement. More importantly, it would have subjected the citizens to unnecessary danger. There would be no assurance that the defendants would appear in court to answer the charges against them. Many fugitives would become wanted fugitives under this new system, which is comparable to what happened in New York.
In New Orleans, Louisiana’s most liberal city, voters soundly rejected candidates running on an extreme reform agenda promoted by a group called PAC for Justice. This is notable because Republicans only comprise 10% of the electorate in New Orleans.
The motto of these seven progressive candidates was to “Flip the Bench.” All the candidates were previously public defenders and supported a platform that included eliminating or reducing the use of the bail system, removing discretion from judges to hold defendants pre-trial and ending any fees or fines paid by defendants who plead guilty or are convicted for their crimes.
Of the seven candidates, only two were victorious, and it is entirely possible that the reason for their victory was not their affiliation with PAC for Justice. According to Gambit Weekly, both victorious candidates started campaigning two years before the election and had earned support from many organizations and stakeholders far beyond the “Flip the Bench” campaign.
The five candidates supported by the PAC for Justice lost even though they outspent their opponents by a wide margin. Another factor that may have impacted the outcome for the “Flip the Bench” slate was that the founder of the movement was Norris Henderson, who was convicted of a heinous crime and has repeatedly claimed that he was innocent and exonerated. Despite his controversial background, he was able to solicit massive donations from philanthropic groups and major donors from across the country.
Along with the PAC for Justice, two other progressive organizations, Working Families Together and NOLA Defenders for Equal Justice, lent their support to the seven “Flip the Bench” candidates. The groups financed slick mailers, billboards, and a coordinated media campaign for these candidates. On Election Day, paid workers distributed professional flyers at high traffic spots and near voting precincts.
Despite a huge financial advantage, five of the seven candidates running on this ticket lost, with a meager 37% average vote total. These candidates advocated such extreme positions that they were not supported by the leading Democrats in New Orleans such as Mayor LaToya Cantrell and U.S. Congressman Cedric Richmond.
A major reason for their defeat was a third-party campaign which highlighted the background of Norris Henderson in a series of social media ads, as well as television and radio commercials. In their TV commercials, viewers were reminded that Henderson was found guilty of murdering a teenage girl while she was riding her bike to school. Instead of being wrongly convicted as he claimed, the ads emphasized that he was convicted twice of the crime and never exonerated. It asked voters to “remember the Flip the Bench candidates who have forgotten Henderson’s murder victim.”
Another factor in the election was the rapidly rising crime rate in New Orleans. The murder rate in 2020 will far exceed last year’s total. In fact, the 2019 murder rate was surpassed in September of this year. With crime on the increase, even the voters of New Orleans, which are overwhelmingly Democratic, did not want to support “Flip the Bench” candidates because they advocated extreme positions that would not hold offenders accountable.
With such decisive results in New Orleans, California and other areas, voters have sent a clear message to political leaders and future candidates. While voters want a justice system that is fair and constructive, they will not embrace an agenda that lacks accountability.
Measures such as defunding police, ending cash bail and removing discretion from elected judges to keep communities safe are not supported by a substantial majority of voters. This is true even in California and New York, our most liberal states, and in New Orleans, one of our most liberal cities.