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Clarence Page: 'Law and order' should be more than a GOP slogan

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San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks to supporters during an election-night event on June 7, 2022, in San Francisco, California. Voters in San Francisco recalled Boudin, who eliminated cash bail, vowed to hold police accountable and worked to reduce the number of people sent to prison.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS
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As they were preparing to go to the airport to visit their new grandchildren, two friends of mine were robbed recently outside their Kenwood co-op building near the University of Chicago.

Suddenly I was alerted once again to the horrors of Chicago's surging crime rate.

News that the recent crime wave rolling through cities nationwide had penetrated my circle of friends triggered an old emotional trauma from a holdup on a vacation in the 1970s.

No physical injuries, fortunately, but my boiling inner rage over the incident never went away.

A lot of us became complacent during the surprising-but-very-welcome dip in violent crime back in the 1990s. It lasted until about 2014 and, despite some upticks, violent crime remains lower than the early 1990s.

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The national rate of 758 incidents per 100,000 in 1991 slid to 398 per 100,000 when the pandemic began in 2020.

But those national statistics bring little comfort now to victims of robbery and more violent crimes or to their families and friends.

So, while much of the nation is transfixed by the Jan. 6 committee hearings -- except perhaps viewers of Fox News, which has found other things to talk about -- the successful recall of San Francisco's progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin has renewed or energized calls in Illinois and other states for legal recall of prosecutors.

Illinois voters approved a recall provision for the state's constitution in 2010, but only for the governor.

More recently, discontent with crime rates in Chicago has brought similar talk about recalling Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, which is not the sort of thing her party, the Democrats, want to be talking about as the midterms approach.

Both Foxx and Boudin have been major figures in a controversial national movement known as "progressive prosecutors." Born out of a time not long ago when crime seemed to be a more manageable problem, their goals sound worthy enough.

Reducing mass incarceration and eliminating abusive policing tactics are popular goals. But it's not easy to attack the "root causes" of crime, as Boudin found in San Francisco, when the public feels awash in a crime wave, including car break-ins, carjackings, open-air drug dealing and homeless people sleeping and relieving themselves en masse on the city's otherwise lovely downtown streets.

"I'm proud this city believes in giving people second chances," said San Francisco Mayor London Breed in a clash with Boudin. "Nevertheless, we also need there to be accountability when someone does break the law. ... I was raised by my grandmother to believe in 'tough love,' in keeping your house in order, and we need that, now more than ever."

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Boudin denounced her emergency funding request for a police crackdown plan as "knee-jerk" and "shortsighted." The voters, in a remarkably low-turnout election, appeared to have other ideas.

Now, with Boudin ousted, Republicans feel further emboldened to make "soft on crime" a major issue in the midterms, while many of them go soft themselves on investigating the Jan. 6 attack on law and order by Donald Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol.

They're accusing Democrats of wanting to "defund the police," although that call is only coming from a small feather of the party's left wing.

Democrats need to push back on that. Hard.

As a new report from the centrist Democratic group Third Way finds, Democrats have been funding police in the 25 largest Democratic-run cities at a pace that actually surpasses spending rates of Republican-run cities on a per-person basis.

In other words, as the center-left Third Way puts it, Republicans talk more about funding the police than actually funding the police.

Party politics aside, we city dwellers need to deal with the crime problem without creating more problems. We need to build bridges, not drive wedges between the police and the public they are assigned to protect and serve, especially in low-income communities of color that need good policing the most -- without abusive policing practices.

Nor can police and prosecutors, regardless of party, fail to prosecute shoplifting and other property crimes that seem like no big deal. Multiple studies over the years find that it's not the length of sentencing that serves as a deterrent to crime as much as the certainty of being punished.

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If we take that simple reality too lightly, the lawbreakers aren't the only ones who get punished. We all do.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.
©2021 Clarence Page. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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