Right-wing media use WSJ op-ed to peddle misinformation about criminal justice reform

Conservative media slammed a supposedly “laughable” op-ed by billionaire philanthropist George Soros in which he defended backing district attorneys who enact criminal justice reforms, with media figures falsely trying to tie these efforts to a supposed rise in crime.

On July 31, Soros wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal criticizing the narrative that criminal justice reform and public safety are mutually exclusive. Soros highlighted that the U.S. spends “$81 billion every year keeping around two million people in prisons and jails” and wrote, “We need to invest more in preventing crime with strategies that work—deploying mental-health professionals in crisis situations, investing in youth job programs, and creating opportunities for education behind bars.” He also pointed — though did not link — to studies showing no connection between reforms and rising crime while noting that “murder rates have been rising fastest in some Republican states led by tough-on-crime politicians.” 

Conservative media — which have previously lobbed antisemitic attacks against Soros for his philanthropic efforts — wasted no time using this op-ed to attack him again. Some outlets opted to focus on isolated criminal incidents in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, trying to tie them to policies from “Soros-backed DAs.”

Conservative blogs including The Daily Caller, Breitbart, and the Washington Examiner also highlighted the recall efforts in San Francisco and Los Angeles as supposed proof that criminal justice reforms are ineffective. The Daily Wire went as far as to call Soros “belligerent” for his efforts. 

But in their critique of Soros’ op-ed, right-wing media conveniently failed to examine the effect of specific criminal justice reform initiatives over several years or mention any policies of these reform-minded district attorneys. And while discussing the recall efforts of these DAs, conservative outlets also ignored the right-wing media smear campaign against them.  

During the August 1 edition of Fox News’ America’s Newsroom, guest anchor Julie Banderas called the op-ed “actually laughable,” before asking Fox News contributor Leo Terrell where Soros is getting his information. Terrell responded that Soros is “living in an alternative universe” and that he wants to “eliminate the criminal justice system, he wants to eliminate law enforcement. He wants no law enforcement, and that is a welcome sight for career criminals and gang members.”

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Citation From the August 1, 2022, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom

In actuality, there is no evidence linking policies including bail reform, eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, and reducing police spending to a spike in crime. In fact, Florida experienced a 50% increase in crime after enacting mandatory minimums, according to the Brennan Center. Similarly, according to a 2019 investigation by USA Today, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, and The Marshall Project, the number of police officers per 1,000 residents has declined in the country over the past two decades and so has the violent crime rate. 

And despite conservative media’s best efforts to argue otherwise, a 2021 study of 67,553 cases in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, found that not being prosecuted for a nonviolent misdemeanor actually decreases the likelihood of a new arrest within two years by 58%. The study found that the decrease over three years is even larger and the effect is biggest on first-time offenders.   

And furthermore, it is wholly irresponsible for right-wing media to suggest that the United States is in any type of crime crisis. The FBI’s national crime data, released quarterly and in an annual report, is the most effective way to ascertain any type of crime wave. Though the FBI was unable to release any national data for the first quarter of 2022 — because not enough local police agencies contributed their own data — the data available suggests violent crime and property crime both went down in 2021. 

Media can and should cover crime in the country, but cherry-picked incidents that are ripped from context give the audience a distorted view, instill unfounded fear, and promote opposition to policies that reinforce long-term public safety.