criminal justice

Chesa Boudin’s Election Is an Opportunity for San Francisco. Will They Embrace It?

Photo: Chesa Boudin for San Francisco District Attorney

Chesa Boudin is San Francisco’s new district attorney-elect. He announced his victory on Saturday afternoon, shortly after his closest opponent, Suzy Loftus, conceded defeat. In a sign of shifting priorities for voters and prosecutor candidates alike, everyone in the race ran on promises to reduce mass incarceration. That the election went to a public defender — the only non-prosecutor of the four candidates — whose earliest memories are of visiting his parents in prison; was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and two leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement; and who outmatched Loftus, the current DA appointed by Mayor London Breed after George Gascón announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection last year, suggests that the heyday of “tough on crime” rhetoric winning DA races is over, at least in San Francisco, for now.

Boudin joins a wave of recently elected “progressive prosecutors” across the country who, rather than promising to crack down on civilian lawbreakers, have vowed to end cash bail, rein in police misconduct, reduce jail and prison populations, and expand alternatives to incarceration. Accordingly, local law enforcement spent $650,000 to ensure his defeat. Among his signature issues is the implementation of restorative-justice programs, which he described in an op-ed for The Appeal in August as focused on meeting the personal needs of people impacted by crimes. In his words:

The program can take the form of a mediated dialogue, or a circle that involves the victim, the person who caused harm, their families, and members of the community — all people who are impacted by the actions of the responsible party. Processes will be built according to the needs of the victim, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach focused solely on punishment without any regard for healing and accountability. But each process will require the offender to take five key steps, mediated by experts in the field and driven by the victim’s needs: take responsibility, acknowledge the impact of actions on the victim, express genuine remorse, take action to repair the harm, and do not do similar harm.

Like many in his cohort, Boudin speaks from direct experience. Upon his swearing in he will join Kim Foxx in Chicago, Aramis Ayala in Orlando, and Rachael Rollins in Boston as one of several reform-minded prosecutors whose outlook on criminal justice was shaped by having a family member in prison. Boudin’s parents, David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, were part of the left-wing radical group the Weather Underground during the 1960s and ’70s. They were arrested and imprisoned in 1981 for driving getaway cars during an armored car robbery that ended with three people dead, including two police officers, in New York.

Boudin was 14 months old at the time. He was adopted and raised by Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers in Chicago, both former “Weathermen,” the latter of whom became a fixture of the 2008 election cycle when Republicans tried linking him to then-candidate Barack Obama. Kathy Boudin was released from prison in 2003 and became an adjunct professor at Columbia University. Gilbert will likely remain incarcerated for the rest of his life. “My whole life I’ve thought of myself as a victim of my parents’ crimes,” Chesa Boudin told the New York Times. “The true victims are the people who were killed. And there’s the rest of us who were third-party victims.”

San Francisco, meanwhile, is a city rife with victims of another sort. Strict zoning laws, a lack of political will to change or circumnavigate them, and a dramatic influx of residents as a result of booming tech jobs has resulted in far greater demand for housing than there is supply, leading to the highest home and rent prices in the U.S. and a mass exodus of residents who can no longer afford them. (This has trickled into the rest of the surrounding Bay Area, which saw a net loss of 35,400 people between 2013 and 2017.) Equally stark are the racial disparities in the local criminal-justice system. Though the San Francisco County Jail housed fewer inmates in 2015 than at any point since the late 1970s, more than half of them were black, compared to less than 6 percent of the general population.

Even in issues of officer conduct, that crime and imprisonment rates in the city are at near-historic lows hasn’t precluded the racism with which they’re so often applied. This was further evidenced by a series of recent scandals wherein several SFPD officers were found to have exchanged racist text messages with one another, including many containing the word “nigger.” These paired with a series of police shootings of black people — in particular, that of an unarmed 27-year-old female carjacking suspect in 2016 — prompted then–police chief Greg Suhr to resign at Mayor Ed Lee’s request.

The criminal-justice system has for too long been America’s go-to answer for a staggering range of social ills. Issues from poverty to homelessness to drug use to mental illness have evaded efforts to solve or at the very least obscure them using methods that weren’t more aggressive policing and prosecution. District attorneys across the country have near-unchecked latitude to decide whom to charge, with what crime, and, if they secure a conviction, how severe a sentence to ask for. As such, it’s significant both symbolically and practically that those decisions will be made for the foreseeable future in San Francisco by a prosecutor who has promised to reverse that punitive approach.

Should Chesa Boudin keep his word, precedent suggests that he’ll meet resistance. In addition to rampant hostility from police and their union representatives, reformist prosecutors elsewhere have had their powers stripped by state legislators, most notably in Florida, where former Governor Rick Scott responded to Aramis Ayala’s decision not to seek the death penalty by removing her from her own cases; and in Pennsylvania, where state lawmakers passed a bill giving the state attorney general power to prosecute certain firearm violations in Philadelphia, and only in Philadelphia, where reform-minded Larry Krasner is DA. Its provisions will expire in two years — right as Krasner’s first term comes to an end. San Francisco and California will have ample opportunity to affirm their progressive bona fides by letting Boudin operate as promised, even as local crime rates inevitably fluctuate. Time will tell whether they embrace the opportunity, or panic at the first mugging and go back to mindlessly feeding the system that’s so devastated their constituents.

Chesa Boudin Is an Opportunity for San Francisco