By targeting known violent criminals and seeking stiff penalties for the worst offenders, a Republican Florida prosecutor has reduced violent crime in her community as big cities with Democratic district attorneys around the country, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, are witnessing crime spikes.
"In 2021, Jacksonville’s murders were down 30% and overall shootings down 17% from the year prior, according to [Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office] data for non-domestic shooting incidents," David Chapman, a spokesperson for the Fourth Circuit State Attorney’s Office, told Fox News Digital. "Given last year’s downturn, our numbers to date aren’t far off the mark and thankfully have not spiked like other cities."
The Fourth Circuit covers Clay, Nassau and Duval counties and the city of Jacksonville and is led by State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who made waves for finding new ways to prosecute known criminals, such as pursuing firearms charges in connection with guns flaunted in music videos. She has sought stiffer sentences for people convicted of gun crimes.
This year, Nelson's jurisdiction is seeing another drop in homicides, although shootings remained even with last year’s at the start of the month, statistics show.
"After experiencing a substantial downturn in violent gun crime in 2021, we continue to work together to combat violent crime in hopes that this trend continues," Nelson told Fox News Digital. "Currently, we remain on par with last year’s numbers. Improving public safety and fighting violent crime remains a top priority for our office and law enforcement partners."
In February, Nelson secured a manslaughter conviction against a drug dealer implicated in a Jacksonville woman’s overdose death. She’s supported a streamlined process for prosecutors to obtain warrants without supervisory approval, a stark contrast to the micromanaged oversight in Los Angeles. In a memo to her staff, she argued in favor of "identifying and incapacitating" dangerous repeat offenders.
Nelson also advocated for a Crime Gun Intelligence Center to "connect the dots" in an attempt to catch shooters before they can commit more crimes.
At the same time, Nelson's office has investigated wrongful convictions to get innocent people out of prison and stepped up its targeting of known violent criminals, especially gang members.
"When she decided last year that she was going to really be aggressive about gun crimes, she got mocked, and one of her detractors was going on and on about, this never works, putting people away and throwing away the key," said Betsy Brantner Smith, spokesperson for the National Police Association and a retired police sergeant with nearly three decades on the job. "And now, look, since she's been doing it, it's been working."
Brantner Smith noted that even when a person is arrested for the first time for a violent crime it may not be the first one they’ve actually committed, adding that most firearms offenses are not linked to legal gun owners.
"Generally speaking, these are not legally held firearms," Brantner Smith added. "When you’re dealing with people who are willing to use a firearm to commit a crime, you’re dealing with really serious offenders."
In the City of Los Angeles, where police are reporting an 8% spike in total violent crimes, progressive District Attorney George Gascon has instructed his deputy prosecutors not to pursue firearms enhancements without his express permission.
In January, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva reported a 94% spike in homicides in the greater area between 2019 and 2021.
Gascon is facing a second recall effort and has feuded with local law enforcement and his own deputy prosecutors over policies that critics say are soft on crime and anti-victim. His refusal to transfer the prosecution of 26-year-old child molester Hannah Tubbs from juvenile to adult court means the convict won’t have to register as a sex offender and could serve just six months in a facility designed for children after pleading guilty to attacking a 10-year-old girl in a Denny’s bathroom.
In New York City, where a mass shooting left more than two dozen people injured earlier this month at a Brooklyn subway platform, total violent crimes were up 44% at the start of the month compared to 2021, with murders down by 8.6% and shootings up by 13.8%, city police statistics show.
Supporters of progressive criminal justice reforms have cited a study finding that very few people out on bail for violent offenses commit a new violent crime and have disputed a link between DA-led reforms and the rise in crime.
But critics have taken issue for a couple of reasons. One is that prosecutions of misdemeanors, especially in Los Angeles under Gascon, have declined sharply, according to statistics from his office.
Brantner Smith pointed to the February death of Amir Locke in Minneapolis. He was shot and killed while police were serving a search warrant targeting his 17-year-old cousin, a murder suspect.
"The gun violence he committed as a juvenile was not dealt with by the system the way it should have been. He should have spent that mandatory three years in adult prison, and he didn’t," she said. "Then he violated his probation, and he should have been again remanded to custody and gone to prison, and he was handed over to his mother."
The result, she said, was the shooting deaths of Otis Elder and Locke.
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and now an LA-based trial lawyer, also said that it’s easier to secure guilty pleas from suspects in custody as opposed to those who have been freed on low or no bail.
"Imagine you’re freed, and I need to convince you as a defense attorney to turn yourself in for a multi-year prison sentence, or even months in custody," he said. "The practical reality is that defendants are much less likely to plead when they’re out on bond."
Philadelphia saw a modest 4.88% decline in homicides but more than 46% more robberies that involved a firearm, in addition to a rise of more than 10% in robberies that did not have guns in play.
Chicago also saw a 5% decline of murders through the first four months of 2022, but they were up 29% over 2020 and 47% from 2019.