Can SF's Chesa Boudin Flip the Script for the Nation's Progressive DAs?

4 min
San Francisco District Attorney-elect Chesa Boudin in downtown San Francisco. (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

After he's sworn in on Wednesday as San Francisco's new district attorney, Chesa Boudin will need to get straight to work building relationships with city and law enforcement leaders if he wants a shot at turning his anti-establishment campaign promises into action.

Boudin joins a new guard of progressive prosecutors across the country who have taken office in recent years. Although many have faced pushback as they’ve tried to implement reforms, scholars and politicos say Boudin may have better odds putting his platform into place in a liberal stronghold like San Francisco. Still, he's likely to encounter divisiveness as residents here grapple with a desire to both improve the quality of life on the street and tamp down incarceration.

A Movement at a Crossroads

In an interview following his win, Boudin told KQED he was inspired to run for DA after seeing the success of progressive candidates in other cities who also sought to rethink local criminal justice policies.

“I watched with amazement and awe as people like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins in Boston and Kim Foxx in Chicago, and so many more across the country, ran for district attorney and won with a platform focused on decarceration,” he said.

“Were we gonna look back in five or 10 years and see the work that those folks achieved as the pinnacle of what this reform movement could accomplish? Or were we going to see that as a critical foundation and starting point for a much more wide-reaching and broad reform effort?”

Boudin campaigned on a number of specific criminal justice reforms, including creating a Wrongful Conviction Unit and an Innocence Commission.

But not everyone saw reform written in the stars. During the election, Boudin fought the more politically centrist San Francisco political establishment to narrowly clinch the election. When then-DA George Gascón decided to step down early in October, Mayor London Breed appointed DA candidate Suzy Loftus as interim DA.

Many thought the move gave Loftus an unfair advantage, and her opponents accused her of cronyism.

“The San Francisco centrist establishment did everything they could to crush [Boudin],” said University of San Francisco Law School professor Lara Bazelon. “And that included the mayor installing Suzy Loftus as the interim DA as a way to put her thumb on the election.”

California political heavyweights like Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris also endorsed Loftus, while the San Francisco Police Officers Association spent over $600,000 on negative campaign ads targeting Boudin in the lead-up to the election.

“To me, the POA was not only challenging the candidate, [it was] challenging the legitimacy of the movement nationally,” said Corey Cook, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College.

Cook said local DA races have become the foreground of the national movement against mass incarceration.

Nathan Ballard, a longtime political consultant in San Francisco, said the uptick in the number of new liberal prosecutors across the country is notable.

“Never before in our history have we had so many DAs who are explicitly running on an anti-incarceration message and winning,” Ballard said.

But even with the support of a majority of voters, this new class of DAs will still have to work within a framework that might be more resistant to major change.

“In other cities and states, state attorneys general are intervening with a more tough-on-crime law and order approach,” Ballard said. “And they are interfering with the DAs’ more progressive inclinations.”

Rethinking the Roots of Incarceration

During San Francisco's heated DA's race, the candidates’ platforms often boiled down to quality of life fixes versus major criminal justice reform, explained Cook. Residents’ frustrations with things like drug paraphernalia and car break-ins, he noted, are butting up against their desires for a more thoughtful approach to crime.

“It becomes very difficult to find nuance when the stakes are perceived on both sides as being so high,” Cook said. “And the much likelier result is that the divide will become hardened rather than that you have room for people to sort of reach common ground.”

Reducing crime and recidivism rates are goals shared by criminal justice agencies across the state said former San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. What’s missing, he said, is a leader to create a consensus about how to achieve those goals.

“There is not a new era that has been articulated yet by Sacramento," Mirkarimi said. "Boudin can help fill that void and answer the question for San Francisco and for the state, 'What [does] criminal justice reform look like?’ ”

San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin discusses bail reform on Feb. 20, 2018, at the city's Hall of Justice. A recent California appellate court ruling requires judges to consider a defendant's ability to pay when setting bail.
Chesa Boudin, then San Francisco's deputy public defender, discusses bail reform at the city's Hall of Justice in early 2018. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Even if Boudin does get pushback, his election ⁠— and the victories of his peers — still sends a strong message that people are fed up with mass incarceration as a cure-all, said USF’s Lara Bazelon.

“People have used the criminal justice system as essentially this dumping ground,” she said. “And there is this extremely unrealistic expectation that it's a hospital, that it's a school. It's none of those things.”

To make real change, it’s not just the DAs who will need to re-envision the way they approach law enforcement, Bazelon said. “You have to look to people like the mayor and ask yourself, if we have the homeless crisis ... and people commit crimes out of dire poverty and mental illness, it's time for other officials in the city to step up and realize that this is a problem that is vastly beyond the scope of the district attorney.”

Boudin has told KQED he’s committed to working with officials who opposed him during the election — but whether he can succeed in creating a DA’s office like none other in the country remains to be seen.

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