Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Media Frame: 5 Common Tactics Used to Discredit Reform D.A.s

The backlash is underway against a recent wave of prosecutors who champion criminal justice reform. Here are some methods of attack.

Rachael RollinsTwitter/Rachael Rollins

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

The movement to reform prosecutor offices through district attorney races is having moderate but encouraging success of late. Recent high-profile electoral wins are not only putting people in power who reject the old tough-on-crime rules, but also helping to push other public officials to adopt reformist positions. 

As with all progressive change, however, these reforms are being met with a backlash. A recent spate of articles and opinion pieces—relying heavily on police and pro-police sources—are using tired tropes to attack reform DAs and their records. Here are five of the most common tactics, and why they don’t hold up under scrutiny.

1. Emotionally charged anecdotes and a lack of meaningful statistics  

News outlets too often rely on stories over statistics to make the case that criminal justice reform efforts, and their backers, are failing.

A recent Boston Globe report by Andrea Estes and Shelley Murphy on “pushback” against reform Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins cherry-picked anecdotes to further its case. In their piece, scary one-off cases in which Rollins did not request bail or dismissed charges entirely replace meaningful statistical analysis. 

The Globe report was accompanied by a graphic labeled “‘Low-level’ crimes,” featuring eight supposedly terrible examples of Rollins letting people out of jail without cash bail. While four of the cases involved allegations of assault, witness intimidation, and drug dealing, three involved allegations of shoplifting, and one involved a man accused of illicitly using his wife’s Lyft account to pick up people at the airport. When seeking to show how criminals are being let loose on the streets, half of the examples the Globe could marshal were shoplifting and illegal rideshare use.

The reporters did attempt the illusion of empiricism, stating they “reviewed more than 1,000 district court cases, of which nearly 300 have been dismissed since Rollins took office,” but little context is provided. “[Rollins] dismissed 40 percent more cases in the Boston Municipal Court’s busiest courthouse, located downtown, than [her predecessor Dan] Conley’s office did during the same period in the previous year … Conley’s office dismissed 33 of the first 200 cases while Rollins’s office dismissed 46.”

But there’s not much explanation given in the subsequent text about how these figures are meaningful. The reporters would concede “the sample size is small.” But then why build the whole case around them? 

What is the broader rate of those released without cash bail compared with the general public? What is the national standard? Of those released who allegedly committed severe crimes, what were the mitigating circumstances? None of the questions are answered. What the reader gets instead is eight seemingly damaging cases about people released—none of whom are said to have reoffended—without any context as to where they fit into the broader picture. 

As Media Frame showed last month, other news outlets also use this tactic: CBS 2 Chicago dug up a three-year-old domestic battery case to smear cash bail reform in Chicago that was less than two years old. A Houston Chronicle op-ed by Pasadena Police Chief Josh Bruegger from February that criticized reform focused entirely on a single case of someone getting released and committing assault and armed robbery. Any and all one-off transgressions committed by those out of jail pretrial are presented as an indictment of reform as such—regardless of what the overall data tells us.The Globe reporters’ anecdotal approach resulted in an open letter from 19 Boston-area academics who accused the reporters of “providing no contextual data” and “leaving largely unchallenged” pro-police claims that Rollins’s approach has led to an increase in crime.

2. Racist language and imagery

Mugshots of Black and Latinx people in one-off cases accompanying generalized criticism of bail reform are common.

The first picture in the Globe’s graphic accompanying their criticism of Rollins is a Latinx man who was released for assault. The aforementioned CBS 2 report featured the mug shot of a Black defendant, also arrested for assault years prior. One local Fox report in St. Louis on how a man bonded out by reforms in the city and later committed murder, heavily featured the mugshot of the Black suspect while implying reforms were responsible for his crime. 

Ronald Sullivan Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School who signed the open letter to the Globe, cited the now-infamous Willie Horton ad used in 1988 by the George H. W. Bush campaign to attack then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. He told The Appeal, “We’ve spent the last 30 years in the shadow of Willie Horton in Massachusetts, and with reporting like this, I worry it will be how we spend the next 30 years, too.” 

Deliberate or not, anti-reform reports still employ this tactic, throwing in a mugshot of Black or Latinx defendants who got “early release.” This appeals to racist sentiment over sober logical arguments about the risk of reform.  

3. ‘Reform isn’t necessary—everything is already great’ 

One of the more peculiar approaches to undermine reform is to insist reform has already taken place and that the reform DA in the race wants to Go Too Far. 

The Daily News––broadly seen as the liberal alternative to the New York Post in the country’s largest city––published an opinion piece this month that takes this line against Queens DA candidate Tiffany Cabán (who is currently engaged in a lengthy recount). Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College, insists in the op-ed that Cabán’s reforms will be at best redundant and, at worst, extremist. New York City, he writes, has already “achieved tremendous accomplishments preventing violence, improving policing, decreasing jail populations and more. These achievements came from the hard work and dedication and experience of some of the very people now being dismissed as part of some neo-liberal cabal.”

“The next Queens district attorney should not only be aware of them,” he continues, “but also build on their success. To uproot the current system risks doing, well, exactly that.” He later adds: “Crime is down. Arrests are down. Incarceration is down. Police use of force is down. What exactly are we hoping to reverse?”

The “nothing to see here” approach is a new—but compelling—anti-reform rhetorical gambit. It gestures toward caring about reform so as to look reasonable and liberal, but then insists there’s nothing more to be done. Not mentioned in the Daily News opinion piece is that, while it’s true the incarcerated population of New York State and the city is down from its peak, it’s still far above that of wealthy nations. To say nothing of the fact that, qualitatively, New York state prisons are still violent and rife with abuse

Saying criminal justice reform is complete in 2019 is comparable to telling Black activists, upon hearing the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, to hang it up and retire because things are slightly better than they were in 1950. Yes, there has been some progress, but the U.S. criminal system is still entirely out of whack with the rest of the world both in scope and severity.

4. Using justifiable fears to create a wedge among liberals

To convince otherwise sympathetic readers and viewers that bail reform is harmful, some outlets choose to focus on how these reforms can have negative effects in areas typically associated with liberal advocacy, such as domestic abuse and gun control.  

An investigation done by the Chicago Tribune in May documented cases where people released on individual recognizance bonds (non-cash bail) later committed domestic abuse. The looming implication of the piece: criticism of bail reforms brought about, in part, by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. It’s a serious issue and one meriting a sober conversation. But a great deal of context is omitted from the simple narrative implied by the Tribune’s report. A February opinion piece for City Limits by Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland Law School, points out the problems with lack of context. First is that unemployment—a common result of excessive detention—heavily correlates with domestic abuse, only serving to compound the problem. Additionally, victims are frequently criminalized. Some surveys show as 1 in 4 victims are arrested or threatened with arrest after reporting domestic abuse to the police, even when they have suffered an injury. There are real, measurable downsides to the carceral approach to domestic violence not factored into these reports.

Outlets like CBS 2 Chicago, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times use the real issue of gun violence to undermine bail reform, a talking point, as we noted last month, with little empirical basis. Gun control is extremely popular with liberals, a demographic also sympathetic to reform efforts, and will likely be a primary messaging battleground for reformers in the years to come.

Living in a free society carries inherent risks. The easiest way to assure there’s no crime ever would be to lock up everyone. But society doesn’t do this because we understand there’s a balance between freedom and the violence of incarceration—our fifth tactic. 

5. No accounting for violence in jail 

Anti-reform news reports and op-eds critical of reform efforts almost never account for the other side of the violence equation: Jail time is an extremely violent and traumatizing experience that harms not just those put in jail, but their families, children, partners, and communities writ large. If one wants to discuss harms done as a result of reform—as anecdotal as they may be—they have to, at least, try to account for the violence of putting people in cages for years on end. 

None of the reports and op-eds that have been discussed here do this. None account for the harm brought on by our routine practice of jailing people. This is because it’s a violence that is routine and largely unseen. But this doesn’t make it any less profound and quantifiable. As John Pfaff detailed for The Appeal last fall, there are real and urgent stakes at play. “People are physically and sexually assaulted in prison,” Pfaff wrote. “Mental health issues arise or worsen in prison. Prison is a vector of illness and STDs …The risk of death from a drug overdose rises sharply upon release.”

In addition, prison tears families apart. Fathers and mothers are ripped away from their children. Adult children can’t care for their aging parents, money is drained from the community. Prison leads to higher aggregate unemployment, severely limits economic mobility, and has been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Criminality both causes and is caused by drug addiction.

Jailing people even fails by the tough-on-crime logic its advocates claim to advance. As Media Frame noted last month, multiple studies have shown that pretrial detention increases the likelihood a person will commit future crimes. This is most likely due to “negative peer influence” of jail and the life-altering act of abruptly forcing people to drop out of high school or college and/or losing a job. Dropping out of school and losing one’s employment correlate heavily with future criminality. 

With criminal justice reform—like all social change—there will be unknowns, trade-offs, and missteps. For too long, the incentives for elected officials have been to throw as many people in jail as possible to mitigate the risk of being subject to a “Willie Horton”-style attack. The recent media pushback against reform DAs portends a similar backlash. Those working to correct the excess and cruelty of America’s prisons must know how to identify these tropes and counter them before these toxic narratives, with the media’s help, further burrow themselves in the public mind.