San Francisco is ablaze with the news that a new contender has joined the race for District Attorney: Public Defender Chesa Boudin. The Chron reports:

“We know the system is broken. Everyone knows that,” Boudin said in a recent interview in his Outer Sunset apartment. “I have the perspective, and the creativity, and the insight into the problems to do something other than just double down on harsher convictions and longer sentences.” 

More than nine months ahead of the Nov. 5 election — the first wide-open race for the district attorney’s office in more than half a century — Boudin has secured endorsements from city progressives like Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Aaron Peskin. He hopes to become the latest in a national wave of reform-minded candidates, in some cases public defenders, to run and win elections for district attorney. 

Boudin believes San Francisco can become safer and a leader in national criminal justice reform by prioritizing rehabilitation and reducing recidivism over punishment.

Boudin’s candidacy is making a splash because of his unique background: he is the son of two radicals who, in his infancy, were imprisoned for their part in the robbery of a Brinks armored car that  ended in the murder of two police officers and one safety guard. But in other ways it is characteristic of a recent interesting trend: the rise of progressives interested in reforming the system from a prosecutorial position.

When John Pfaff wrote Locked In he waged what, at the time, was an uphill battle against what he refers to as “the conventional story” of mass incarceration–namely, one that attributes the rise in imprisonment rates to the racialized war on drugs. Relying on statistics, Pfaff disproved the causality: most people are in prison for violent offenses, not drugs, and incarceration flows from criminality, not criminalization. However, notably, it wasn’t that people were committing more felonies: rather, county prosecutors were charging more violent felonies than before. The recession-era reforms I discuss in Cheap on Crime targeted, for the most part, the low-hanging fruit of nonviolent offenders, which made them more politically palatable and easier targets of bipartisan good will. To produce a significant dent in incarceration rates, said Pfaff, we need to embrace reform for violent criminals.

While Pfaff’s explanation was less edgy and politically popular than the mainstream war-on-drugs explanation, he gradually managed to win over mainstream progressive, as this New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik demonstrates. Among those convinced that the key to reversing incarceration trends is changing prosecutorial policies was activist Shaun King, founder of the PAC Real Justice. The PAC’s goal, per its website, is threefold:

  1. Elect candidates to county prosecutor positions where they can make a material impact on people’s lives by helping to combat discriminatory policing, limiting or eliminating money bail, and rolling back other practices that lead to mass incarceration. Electing reformers to county prosecutor positions will also help restore voters’ faith in public sector to address their problems.
  1. Win county prosecutor races with a systematic, mass participation approach to digital and field pioneered on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Once prosecutors are elected they face enormous pressure from police unions, other elected officials, and the staff in their offices. A campaign that includes volunteer to vote contact, small dollar fundraising, and social media organizing will strengthen the voices of voters as a countervailing, pro-reform voice to hold newly elected prosecutors accountable to the people who helped elect them.
  1. Win races with a mandate for real justice. By working to help candidates with a bold, clearly articulated platform win by the widest possible margin, we help create a mandate for overcoming the barriers to making big changes on day one of a new administration. The 2017 success of Larry Krasner in Philadelphia raised the bar for what reformers could demand once in office — and other elected local officials are following suit such as when the Philadelphia City Council voted to abolish cash bail.

Larry Krasner’s victory became the blueprint for the new prosecutorial candidate: the progressive D.A. Like Boudin, Krasner was a career defense attorney who famously took on law enforcement in high-profile lawsuits.

Do progressive D.A.s live up to their promise? It remains to be seen. David Sklansky study of the change in police demographics was not optimistic about the effect of police diversification on police culture, but we could differ on whether the prosecutorial organizational culture is more amenable to change. Boudin’s candidacy promises a memorable race, but should he win, his tenure as D.A. could be an interesting test case: will he change the face of San Francisco prosecutions, or will the office change him?

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