Bid to recall San Francisco DA could be bellwether for progressive prosecutors

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Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s chief prosecutor, elected on an agenda of tackling mass incarceration, is facing a recall election that could have ramifications for criminal justice reform efforts across the US.

A former public defender and the son of two leftist Weather Underground radicals who spent decades in prison, Boudin pledged to undo the harms of racism in the system, hold police accountable for misconduct and end the criminalization of poverty. After his election in November 2019, he became one of the most prominent leaders in a growing movement to elect progressive prosecutors.

Boudin, 41, enacted many campaign promises: he became the first San Francisco district attorney to charge an officer for on-duty manslaughter; created a wrongful conviction unit that freed a man imprisoned for decades; stopped prosecuting contraband cases stemming from minor traffic stops; eliminated cash bail; and reduced jail and prison populations.

But amid escalating anxieties about crime during the pandemic, Boudin has faced intensifying opposition from law enforcement, conservatives, tech investors, and some constituents and elected Democrats in the city, including the mayor. Critics have blamed Boudin for the city’s ongoing struggles with violence, homelessness and addiction and have called for a law enforcement crackdown and harsher punishments.

Related: San Francisco’s progressive district attorney will face recall election

After an initial recall campaign failed to get enough signatures last summer, a newly formed committee of his opponents, called San Franciscans for Public Safety, in November succeeded in placing the measure on the 7 June ballot. If the recall succeeds, the mayor will appoint a successor.

Recall backed by the ultra-wealthy

Conservative-backed recalls have become increasingly popular in California, where the barrier to getting a recall on the ballot is lower than in many other states and where voters can petition to remove a politician for any reason.

The campaign to recall Boudin has a financial advantage, backed by ultra-wealthy donors, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, including Ron Conway, an early DoorDash investor; Garry Tan, an Instacart investor; David Sacks, a former PayPal executive; and William Oberndorf, a billionaire and Republican mega-donor.

The recall has painted a bleak picture of violence in San Francisco, saying crime is “surging” and has “hit an embarrassing high”. During the pandemic, homicides in the city have increased, mirroring national trends, although overall violent and property crimes have decreased and are lower than they were decades prior, according to the Chronicle.

There’s an almost universal misperception prosecutors control crime rates, but they don’t

Sandra Mayson, University of Pennsylvania

“This is a Republican- and police union-led playbook to undermine and attack progressive prosecutors who have won elections across the country,” Boudin said in a recent interview with the Guardian. “The playbook involves delegitimizing and fear-mongering and recalling. It’s a tactic of being used by folks who are increasingly unable to prevail in elections when they put forward their views on public safety and justice. “

Progressive prosecutors in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have also been threatened with recall attempts, in some cases after they were re-elected.

“If these folks who are attacking my administration have the courage, they can run for district attorney next year and put their record, credentials and policy ideas to voters and see if their views are popular,” Boudin said.

The backlash to progressive prosecutors is rooted in the false premise that DAs directly affect crime trends, said Sandra Mayson, a University of Pennsylvania law professor: “There’s an almost universal misperception prosecutors control crime rates, but they don’t. Crime rates are a function of complex socio-economic forces. ”

boudin smiles as people around him cheer

Boudin at an election night event in 2019. Photograph: Scott Strazzante / AP

Boudin’s office noted that some of the California regions with “tough on crime” conservative DAs relying on harsh punishments had experienced some of the state’s highest crime rates.

“Chesa has been focusing on tackling the root of violence in our cities,” John Legend, the musician and criminal justice activist who is supporting Boudin, said in a recent interview, noting Boudin’s lawsuit against manufacturers of untraceable “ghost guns” his efforts to expand victims’ services. “He’s creating diversion programs to ensure we’re not overusing incarceration as a solution, when there are better solutions available that don’t disrupt families. He’s done what he promised to do for San Francisco. “

‘This will be a bellwether’

Boudin also argued that some attacks against him were rooted in misinformation. Several widely cited cases of him being “soft on crime” have fallen apart under scrutiny. In one instance, a local reporter claimed the DA had dropped charges against a teenager who had allegedly attacked an elderly woman, but it came out a month later that charges had never been dropped.

In another, a 69-year-old man sued Boudin after he was attacked by a father and his “teenage” son, who allegedly used a baseball bat. The father pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery, which the man said was a “slap on the wrist”. But subsequent reporting revealed the “teenager” was actually an 11-year-old who had swung a plastic bat, and his father was a wheelchair user. The dispute started when the 69-year-old complained about the father and son taking up too much space on the sidewalk, the DA said. The initial charges were also filed in 2019 by Boudin’s predecessor.

Related: Son of jailed radicals, reviled by the police union. Now, Chesa Boudin is San Francisco’s top cop

Asked about that case and how he thinks the DA should have handled it, Richie Greenberg, chairman of one of the pro-recall committees, said: “We try not to get involved with actual policy or analysis. But we need to keep accountable criminals, regardless of their age, whatever the appropriate accountability method. ”

But should the 11-year-old have been charged or imprisoned? “We need to go back and see how other DAs would’ve handled it. I’m not in charge of the DA’s office, “said Greenberg, a former Republican mayoral candidate who launched the first recall effort last year.

Boudin has cut the juvenile jail population in half, with 33 children incarcerated at the start of his term compared to 14 on average as of March 2022, his office said. Boudin also oversaw a 35% reduction in the population of San Francisco residents in state prisons, achieved through resentencing and diversion.

Pressed on whether he thought more youth overall should be jailed, Greenberg said: “We’re not talking about philosophies on whether or not we want to change the system on how you sentence a juvenile versus an adult. This is starting to veer off into another topic. ”

Greenberg said Boudin should never have been elected because he was a public defender. The DA, Greenberg claimed, had gained supporters by being “charismatic” and “using buzzwords like mass incarceration and racial justice. He just throws out those words and people eat it up like in a cult, like he is a cult leader… This is a woke, non-DA, a pretender, a poser. ”

San Francisco for Public Safety, the other group behind the recall, has said its effort is led by “lifelong Democrats”. The recall groups have not endorsed a successor to replace Boudin.

Boudin said this was part of the problem with recalls: “Voters have no idea what policies or person could replace [me] and that’s a very dangerous thing for democracy. “

Mayson said the recall would be a “bellwether for progressive prosecution” across the US, adding that the outcome would “affect whether prosecutors elsewhere feel emboldened to take new approaches or whether they will perceive that as a political risk”.

Greenberg said he wanted the recall to be a “template” for targeting other progressive DAs and candidates: “My vision is to take the national movement so that we can push back against these quote-unquote‘ progressive ’DAs.”