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Election showed problems with justice system reform

In the 2020 election, the far left failed miserably. At the presidential level, Donald Trump added 11 million votes to his 2016 total. In other races, the GOP had a particularly good Election Day as Republicans gained control of at least a dozen U.S. House seats, a governorship, three state legislative bodies and probably retained control of the U.S. Senate, although the answer will not be known until the outcome of the two Georgia races are decided in January.

Some House Democrats were furious with the far-left “squad” gaining control of the airwaves and promoting such messages as “Defund the Police.” They believe this rhetoric cost the Democrats many of these contested congressional seats. In the wake of riots and out of control crime in many urban areas this year, voters are concerned and want law and order, even in 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 was predictable as repeat offenders released into the community committed horrific crimes. Not only prosecutors and police were upset, but the public as well. Eventually, the reforms were changed, and 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 important issue, the voters were clear, cash bail will stay.

In a lopsided vote, 56.4 percent, 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 as criminals would have taken advantage of a system that is not in use anywhere else in the country.

In New Orleans, Louisiana’s most liberal city, voters soundly rejected candidates running on a criminal justice reform platform promoted by a group called PAC for Justice. This is remarkable because Republicans only comprise 10 percent 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 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, but the fact that they are African-American females, which comprise 34 percent of the total New Orleans electorate. In the 2020 elections, African-American female candidates were successful in a wide variety of races in New Orleans. A similar outcome occurred in Houston in 2018, when 17 African-American females were elected to judgeship positions.

The candidates supported by the PAC for Justice lost even though they outspent their opponents by a wide margin. The PAC for Justice was founded by a convicted murderer, Norris Henderson. Despite his controversial background, he was able to solicit massive donations from philanthropic groups and liberal activists 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-percent average vote total. One reason for their defeat was the involvement of The Watchdog PAC, 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 liberal voters of New Orleans did not want to support “Flip the Bench” candidates who they felt would not hold criminals accountable for their actions.

With such decisive results in New Orleans, California and other areas, voters have sent a clear message to 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 ending cash bail and removing discretion from elected judges to keep a community safe are not popular in our country — even in California, our most liberal state, and in New Orleans, one of our most liberal cities.

Jeff Crouere is the host of “Ringside Politics,” which airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 10 p.m. Sunday on WLAE-TV 32, a PBS station, and 7 a.m. till 11 a.m. weekdays on WGSO 990 AM in New Orleans and the Northshore. He is the political analyst for WGNO-TV ABC 26 and a columnist for selected publications. For more information, visit his web site at RingsidePolitics.com. E-mail him at jeff@ringsidepolitics.com.