BERKELEY, Calif.—When scholars from the Right and Left recently met at UC Berkeley School of Law to debate what to do about surging crime, the event provided a rare opportunity to identify key philosophical and policy fault lines as Americans ponder policing and criminal justice.

The conference, sponsored by Berkeley Law and The Heritage Foundation, featured not only scholars from across the political spectrum but district attorneys and former district attorneys—including San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, now a professor at the law school and director of Berkeley’s Criminal Law & Justice Center. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s news and commentary outlet.)

What became apparent throughout the conference is the stark contrast between each side’s view of human nature. 

Although both sides said they want fewer crimes, a wide and seemingly intractable gulf appeared to loom between the methods the Left and Right would use to achieve that end.

Zack Smith, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, led off with a speech about the necessity of the discussion—especially considering demands for reduced sentencing and other criminal justice reforms that have coincided with increases in crime.

In 2014, California adopted Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that reduced penalties for many crimes and led to the early release of many prisoners. The change led to a series of similar laws around the country.

“Too often today when we talk about criminal justice reform, when we talk about criminal justice issues, there’s no accountability for people who break the law,” Smith told conferees.

Smith said it was a myth that first-time drug offenders, for instance, spend time behind bars.

“Most people in prison today are committing violent crimes like rape, robbery, and murder, so whenever you hear panelists today or elsewhere talk about reducing the prison population by 50%, 75%, even 80% in some cases, that necessarily means releasing some repeat, violent offenders back into our communities,” the Heritage scholar said.

Here’s a roundup of the most important discussions that took place at the March 8 gathering, titled Justice Unveiled: Debating Crime and Public Safety Conference.

How to Prevent Crime: A Conflict of Visions          

A panel on policing and public safety at the conference demonstrated the sharpest conflict of visions—as commentator Thomas Sowell has put it—between the Left and Right on crime. 

On the Right, the focus is on targeted policing in high-crime areas and stricter sentencing laws for those who commit crimes.

On the Left, so-called prison abolitionists focus on structural forces and “root causes” to explain crime, and blame more policing for creating more crime.

Jamelia Morgan, a professor at the Center for Racial and Disability Justice at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, argued for more “soft police” to take the place of traditional policing. Essentially, that means more social workers instead of police officers.

Morgan pointed to the writings of Mariame Kaba, who is at the forefront of those who want to abolish police and prison. The law professor quoted from Kaba’s 2020 New York Times article, published just as the George Floyd protests and riots were beginning.

Morgan said, quoting Kaba:

As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm. People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation.

Kaba advocates spending more taxpayer money on housing, food, and education as an answer to problems of safety and justice.

Many U.S. cities defunded police departments in 2020 and 2021, after Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis. 

The murder rate jumped by 30% from 2019 to 2020 according to the FBI, the largest single-year jump in recorded U.S. history.

Rafael Mangual, the Nick Ohnell fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said police are an essential element of promoting justice and protecting citizens in a free society. Police perform two broad roles, Mangual said, specifying that “one is to detect violations of the law, the other is to prevent violations of the law.”

Often, just the presence of police is enough to deter crime, according to research, he said.

The second way to stop crime is to remove criminals from the street, the Manhattan Institute scholar said, noting crime statistics that show how investing in police led to sharp reductions in crime and other costs to the city and community.

“If a police officer makes an arrest and removes an active offender from the street, if that’s someone who was committing 10, 20, 30 felonies a year, that individual being in custody spares the community the crimes that would have otherwise been committed,” Mangual said.

The main thing driving recent spikes in crime is the problem of repeat offenders, he said. The same individuals often commit crimes over and over because the justice system puts them back on the street.

“In the city of Chicago, the typical homicide suspect has 12 prior arrests,” Mangual said. “One in five [homicide suspects], 20 prior arrests, these are not just individuals who are being locked up for the first offense and having the key thrown away.”

The problem of crime always will be with us, whether we like it or not, the Manhattan Institute scholar said.

“No one has ever been able to figure out how to eliminate poverty; no one has ever figured out how to eliminate inequality; no one has ever figured out how to eliminate crime or predation. It is part of the human condition,” Mangual said.

Taking away policing, which has proved to be effective in reducing crime and violence, is “irresponsible,” he concluded.

This enunciation of the constrained view of human nature provoked a response from representatives of the Left on the panel.

Shakeer Rahman, an attorney for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and Los Angeles Community Action Network, appeared incredulous that Mangual said crime and inequality always will be with us.

“Abolitionists are the hopeful ones, because we believe that a world without poverty is possible, that that can be built and that’s at least worth prioritizing,” Rahman said.

Rahman said that this leads to the problem of racial disparities in incarceration. Factors such as structural racism lead to this disparity, he said.

Mangual interjected at this point, saying he believes some structural factors drive crime. It isn’t because something is wrong with people like himself who have African roots, he said.

Instead, the issue is the breakdown of families, Mangual argued. The disintegration of the family—especially black families—has created childhood disorders that lead to longer-term behavioral issues, he said.

Rahman responded that the U.S. criminal justice system has broken up black families, to which Mangual replied that research suggests that the prevalence of family members who engage in criminal activities is an even bigger driver of crime than fathers who are absent from the home.

Crime Surge a Hoax, the Left Says

According to a recent Gallup poll, the number of Americans—both Republicans and Democrats—who say they consider crime a “serious problem” is at the highest point since the polling firm began recording it in 2000.

But many left-wing speakers at the conference said the widespread perception that crime has become a serious problem is based on media propaganda and is false.

USC Gould School of Law Professor Jody Armour, who focuses on critical race theory scholarship, said the perception that crime is increasing is just a “moral panic.”

One of the biggest points of contention at the Berkeley Law School conference was whether there is a spike in crime at all. On a panel about crime trends, civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis said that media reporting on crime is the issue, not the crimes themselves.

Although many crime statistics are “true facts,” Karakatsanis said, they are used “to deceive people in profound ways.” He blamed the media for creating the impression that crime is up.

The civil rights lawyer pointed to a brazen theft at a San Francisco Walgreens that received widespread media coverage. The incident was real, he said, but it created a “false impression” that shoplifting is increasing when shoplifting is down.

Reported shoplifting incidents were down slightly in San Francisco in 2023 compared to the previous year, but the latest numbers are still much higher compared to 2019

Walgreens and other retail stores throughout the Bay Area often take extreme actions to prevent widespread retail theft, such as putting locks on freezers and shelves. 

One Walgreens location in Richmond, California—a city close to San Francisco—put chewing gum behind glass, The San Francisco Standard reported. Many Walgreens locations have closed down because the drug store chain says they no longer are profitable.

Many such retail thefts are being committed by organized crime rings, police say.

Talking about crime comes down to “framing,” Karakatsanis said, and “most people in society have utterly lost their way when they think about what public safety means.”

The problem with looking at crime, he said, is that most people look at so-called index crimes such as homicide, assault, and property theft. Most crimes, he argued, aren’t reported as crimes. He pointed to tax evasion, “wage theft,” and corporate fraud.

A System Focused on Equity, Not Preventing Crime

Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald said she isn’t optimistic about criminal justice trends. 

MacDonald spoke about how many cities signal that crimes simply won’t be punished. So, she said, criminals became more brazen and the commission of many kinds of crimes exploded.

She focused on the increase in retail crimes that the left-wing scholars dismissed.

“Our criminal justice elites have decided that they would rather subject the property of honest businessmen to mass expropriation than to apprehend and punish looters, because doing so has a disparate impact on minority criminals,” MacDonald said.

These are “not crimes of necessity, they are crimes of opportunity,” she said.

MacDonald drove home the point that the rise in retail and property crimes is not being driven by poverty or economic hardship. Many of those committing retail thefts record the act on a smartphone and post the videos on social media, she said.

“No one who has a smartphone is poor,” MacDonald said. “No one engaged in these crimes is unable to eat. Rather, predatory theft comes from a sense of entitlement. If others have something I don’t have, I’m entitled to take it.”

The Manhattan Institute scholar said society shouldn’t have to be conditioned to assume that the trivial items of life—such as shampoo—need to be locked up at retail stores.

“This is not a normal state,” MacDonald said. “It is due to a failure of will. The will to enforce the values of civilized society.”

Passage of California’s Prop 47, MacDonald said, launched a wave of similar decriminalization measures around the country. Reclassifying many property and drug felonies as misdemeanors, she said, has resulted in hardcore criminals remaining on the street.

“It is not a ‘moral panic’ to be concerned about the lawlessness that has broken out since 2020, it is realism,” MacDonald said, referring to Armour’s use of the term.