San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s recall demands rethink


Economists sometimes say that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. With that in mind, given San Francisco’s notorious left-wing expelled a prosecutor accused of being “soft on crime,” many might assume that the rest of the nation will reflexively dismiss prosecutors who don’t define their job as seeking the maximum sentence for each defendant. The reality is far more complicated, but San Francisco District Attorney (DA) Chesa Boudin’s recall demands a rethink of the “progressive prosecutor” brand.

First, let’s unpack the popular claim that this recall is the harbinger of an anti-reform tsunami about to sweep the country. On the one hand, most elected prosecutors do not have nearly $7 million working against them, as Boudin did, and most jurisdictions do not have recall elections, creating unique electoral dynamics. More specifically, these plebiscites tend to generate lower turnoutwith around a third fewer people voting this time that in 2019 when Boudin was elected, and attract the segment of voters the most dissatisfied with the status quo.

Unlike Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom’s attempted recall, Boudin’s replacements were not on the ballot and San Francisco Mayor London Breed is now set to name his successor. At a time when the public is skeptical of most elected officials and candidates, an election with no opponents to criticize creates a referendum on the status quo – a far more perilous setup for an incumbent than a choice between options erroneous.

Boudin was also more vulnerable because San Francisco adopted some of the the strictest COVID-19 restrictions in the country. This affected both perceived and actual levels of public safety, as well as Boudin’s ability to prosecute crime. With more people locked in their homes instead of going to work or going out to eat, those looking to commit crimes made up a larger share of the total number of people on the streets. So even if the number of crimes reported in San Francisco was lower in 2021 than in 2019there is evidence that in dense urban environments where the denominator of the total number of people on the street dropped precipitously, those who exited were more likely to be victims of street crime.

As the pandemic and related restrictions have tested the work of prosecutors across the country, including through the mandatory closure of their own offices and courts, San Francisco courthouses have been particularly slow to reopen.This created a backlog of 441 accused of crime who, as of May 2022, had passed their last legal trial date. Like Pudding recognizedthis outcome not only delays the administration of justice, but also frustrates victims of crime seeking accountability and closure.

Finally, although Boudin never expressly called for “defunding the police”, comments he did during his initial campaign led some to believe he favored the idea, a perception promoted by his detractors. The defund slogan has rightly become toxic over the past two years as homicides have risen, although the rise in murders has occurred in all jurisdictions, regardless of the ideological orientation of the AD.

To be clear, San Francisco police unions also attacked Boudin’s predecessors, including Vice President Kamala Harrisand probably would have continued to oppose him anyway, partly because he fulfilled his duty to prosecute nine officers for alleged misconduct.. But other district attorneys who have campaigned as “progressive prosecutors” have smartly avoided jokes that could leave them carrying the “defunding” baggage, an association that can heighten tensions with the officers they depend on for arrest suspects and collect evidence.

This mix of dynamics may not apply to all prosecutors who have campaigned for reform, but Boudin’s reminder should still prompt a rethink of the notion that prosecutions should be “progressive.” This word usually connotes the expansion of the size and cost of government, often without sufficient accountability. In fact, however, policies and practices that seek to allocate scarce resources more effectively and provide public visibility of a prosecutor’s work and performance resonate not only with voters in liberal jurisdictions, but also elsewhere. .

Take the top attorney in Jacksonville, Florida, Melissa Nelson. Nelson won the post of conservative Republican by pledging to reduce the number of young people tried in adult court, identify and correct wrongful convictionsand diverting many defendants with mental health and addictions to specialized courts and treatment programs. At the same time, its balanced approach has included focus prosecutorial resources on serious crimes committed with firearmsseeking both severe penalties where warranted and partner with community violence prevention groupsand advocate for expanded victim services. Since her election in 2016, she has not only fulfilled these commitments but deployed an online dashboard prosecution performance measures, providing greater public transparency. This scorecard is identical to those used by its Democratic counterparts in Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and similar to a dashboard that Boudin enlarged after being originally developed by his predecessor, George Gascon, who is now the DA in Los Angeles and can deal with his own recall election.

The fact is that we must not choose between the right and the left, but between two conceptions of the role of the prosecutor. According to an outdated approach, the only mission of the prosecutor is to send as many people to prison for as long as possible, despite burgeoning research showing that in many cases opting for formal prosecution and prison rather than diversion for those arrested for the most minor crimes increases recidivism. Yet reality has always been more complex than sign in some stores stating “Shoplifters will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law”. Indeed, Americans of all ideologies can appreciate the difference between a random kid stealing a candy bar and organized shoplifting like the “crush and grab“the burglaries that plagued San Francisco and surrounding areas late last year.

The alternative model, in which the prosecutor is a “Ministry of Justice,“involves not only reaching a fair resolution in the case at hand, but also weighing the overall impact of how each case is handled on metrics such as reducing recidivism, controlling costs and proportionality in the resolution of cases, regardless of the origin of the victim or the accused.

Ultimately, voters’ decision to reject Boudin is at least largely attributable to local circumstances — and indicates that some jurisdictions have gone too far to keep the wheels of justice from turning during the pandemic. What he does not suggest the existence of a strong public demand that prosecutors give up something other than a punitive impulse.

Sending the most dangerous and chronic offenders to jail so they cannot continue to threaten the public will always be part of a prosecutor’s job, but a broader toolkit and vision is needed to deliver personalized justice to to maximize the use of public resources. If we categorize the prosecution’s vital government function performance as progressive or conservative, it obscures the truth that law enforcement and the balance between security and justice are moral and practical imperatives, rather than ideological crusades. . The recall in San Francisco is over, but a holistic, data-driven prosecution approach is too important to forget.

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