Chesa Boudin stands with SFUSD staff in front of the district headquarters in San Francisco on March 14, 2022, to protest the mismanagement of paychecks of district staff. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Arguing about San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin's performance in office is practically the city's pastime these days. Is "Chesa" the root cause of the city's assaults, its thefts, its anarchy, as some publicly put it?
Those are the salvos launched by keyboard warriors on social media every day, but Monday night, those experienced in criminal justice took the debate to center stage.
San Francisco's United Democratic Club, Eastern Neighborhoods Democratic Club, Edwin M. Lee Asian Pacific Democratic Club, and Willie B. Kennedy Democratic Club hosted a virtual debate among professionals who have seen different sides of the criminal justice system, to get at the heart of Boudin's time in office.
The evening's talks were moderated over Zoom by KQED politics correspondent Marisa Lagos and San Francisco Chronicle criminal justice reporter Megan Cassidy.
While many in virtual attendance seemed dug in on either side — for, or against, the upcoming recall election against Boudin — organizers hoped the night's discussions could illuminate Boudin's career for those finding themselves on the electoral fence.
It's been a particularly rough few weeks for Boudin's political prospects, as a recent poll, paid for by proponents of his recall, found that 68% of San Franciscans would remove him from office if the recall election were today. (The recall is set for June.) In another public blow, his office recently lost a case against San Francisco Police Department officer Terrance Stangel, in what may be the city’s first trial against an officer for excessive force allegations in the line of duty, KQED previously reported.
At Monday’s debate, two prosecuting attorneys formerly with Boudin’s office, Brooke Jenkins and Don du Bain, argued Boudin needed to be recalled in light of the fear of crime pervading San Francisco. Jenkins was assigned to the homicide unit in the DA's office and has been a sex crimes prosecutor. Du Bain is a 30-year prosecutor and also has served as Solano County district attorney.
Those arguing against the recall characterized crime statistics used against Boudin as cherry-picked, with fear-mongering used to drive a wedge between Boudin and the public. The debaters against the recall included Tinisch Hollins, who is a crime survivor and also executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, and Richard Corriea, a retired San Francisco police commander who is now the director of the International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership at the University of San Francisco.
"The role of people who prosecute was not viewed as something people who look like me do," said Jenkins, the former prosecutor for Boudin, speaking of people of color. She joined the San Francisco District Attorney's office specifically to serve former DA George Gascón, whom she described as "leading the way" on alternative forms of incarceration.
"He was able to help us balance reform with making sure we kept the community safe," she said.
Boudin, she said, is "failing to keep San Franciscans safe."
Speaking against the recall, Richard Corriea said his family has been in the San Francisco Police Department since the 1906 earthquake. He's a fourth-generation San Franciscan who attended George Washington High School.
"I did not support Chesa Boudin in his race for district attorney," Corriea said.
So what is he doing opposing the Boudin recall? Corriea said he's seen half-truths and "lies" take hold of crime statistics.
"It's been disturbing, and seems bent on fomenting fear," he said. "I object to the recall because the promoters said San Francisco would be safer if we'd just dump the district attorney, which is absurd."
Throughout the night, the criminal justice experts tackled homicide rates, shoplifters, and the records of previous district attorneys.
In response to the first question, Jenkins suggested that diversion, a procedure by which defendants avoid criminal conviction if they agree to rehabilitation and a period of probation, is overused by DA Boudin.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MEGAN CASSIDY: Why is it we should blame the DA for increases in property crimes, but not credit his policies, let's say, for the relatively low murder rate? If the murder rate goes up somewhat here, but is consistent with the rest of the country, why should we blame the DA's office for this?
JENKINS: For the most part I think everyone agrees, even in the street, murder is wrong and it won't go unpunished, but when the DA creates an environment where property crime, where assault, where burglary is acceptable, where there is no consequence, where even if you are arrested, you are released within hours, at most a day or two, and you’re back out into the street, it doesn't matter if you commit five more burglaries, you're going to be released each time and at most get probation. At best you get diversion regardless of how many offenses you pick up.
He's creating a landscape where criminal offenders desire to come here and commit crimes. They know that there's no penalty.
CORRIEA: I'd just like to say, after 35 years of police work, I don't believe criminals in their calculation are thinking about what Chesa Boudin is going to do or not do to them.
What they think about is, "What are the chances of getting maybe a tourist car with valuable items in it? What are their chances of getting caught?" Those factors weigh in. What are their chances of blending into the surroundings? How many ways can they escape? But honestly, they're not sitting there going, "Well, in the marketplace of the Hall of Justice, how will I do?"
MARISA LAGOS: Even if you support this district attorney, there's no question that people feel unsafe. So why shouldn't the DA be held accountable for some of the really horrific or just upsetting things we've seen, particularly around property crimes?
CORRIEA: Property crimes are changing because of the pandemic. The issue of poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, failed public policy, mass incarceration, discrimination, all those factors come into play.
So to say, hmm, someone is here shoplifting, it's the DA's fault ... What about retailers that have gone from stopping people and holding them and arresting them, to not using security and passing on the cost to the consumer?
I can tell you that I never made a shoplifting arrest, ever, because they were done by private security in the stores who would call the police and sign a citizen's arrest card, and we would take them down and book them.
The idea that a DA is going to change property crime in the city? I just don't see it.
HOLLINS: It's also important to mention that property crime closure rates have been sadly low in San Francisco for a very long time. That did not just start. That's not really related to who the DA is.
CASSIDY: The DA's office is just one arm of the criminal justice system. We've seen police clearance rates, particularly with property crimes, drop significantly. A lot of these crimes are not getting arrested in the first place. Do the police also share the blame for crime rates? Particularly with property crimes?
JENKINS: The issue for us is Chesa creates the landscape where criminals think this is OK behavior.
We can talk about examples where we've heard from the police that they will make an arrest and somebody will tell them, "That's fine because I'll be out in a few hours. The DA's office isn't going to do anything about it." Or jail calls where they're saying, you know what, pretty much theft is legal in San Francisco. These are the stories that we are hearing. It doesn't take the responsibility off of the police to make arrests, of course.
I think we have to understand we are in a universe now where morale is low, I think in law enforcement, period. We keep hearing, "The DA's office isn't going to do anything about it, so why should I risk my safety to make an arrest?"
CORRIEA: Point of fact, Chesa has reached out to the unions and department, over and over again. What people don't know about city government is, it's a large blame game, and now Chesa is being blamed.
LAGOS: What is criminal justice reform, if not what Chesa is doing?
DU BAIN: Like Mr. Corriea, I've been in law enforcement myself for 30 years as a prosecutor, in various counties in California. I recognize the complexity of what we do in criminal justice. I've known plenty of progressive district attorneys in my time, [such as] Nancy O'Malley in Alameda County. Here in San Francisco, we had both Kamala Harris and George Gascón, who were very progressive district attorneys.
They were progressive because they created new, innovative programs to try to keep our young people out of the criminal justice system in the first place and to rehabilitate those criminal offenders who ended up in the system.
Kamala Harris created Back on Track, which was a successful program to keep kids out of the criminal justice system, employed and in a productive lifestyle. George Gascón expanded that program into young adult court. He also created a mental health court called Behavioral Health Court ... and Intensive Supervision Court for adult offenders who are recidivists.
Those are true progressive prosecutors. Chesa hasn't developed a single rehabilitative program.
CORRIEA: Well, I'm looking at five pages of accomplishments that would hurt your eyes to look at. My brother was murdered in 1988 and my worst memories are dealing with the criminal justice system. The rest of it has faded for me, over time.
CASSIDY: Including crime, one of the things polls show people are worried about [is] drug overdoses, open-air drug use on the streets, particularly in the Tenderloin. What role should the DA's office be playing to stem this tide?
JENKINS: The DA's office plays a huge role in that. We make the decisions on what to do with drug-dealing offenses. We have the ability to use the consequence for that ... to incentivize them to engage in drug treatment, or go to drug court where they can engage in substance abuse counseling or treatment.
So it's imperative the chief law enforcement officer, the district attorney, use that office to compel people who need treatment into treatment, and to hold drug dealers accountable for taking advantage of this vulnerable population.
That, again, does not necessarily mean sending people to prison. It means you have to use the consequence as an incentive. It could be an incentive for vocational training.
HOLLINS: We're having a conversation about a public health issue with a criminal justice lens. We know we don't have enough treatment beds. I had a brother who struggled with addiction and later lost his life. Both of my brothers were on probation when they passed away. That's a sad failure of the systems.
The DA should focus on crime, I agree. But the drug crisis is much bigger than the DA's office.
I don't think it's been any better under any of the previous DAs.
Just to reference the programs that had been implemented under District Attorney Harris and Gascón, I worked very closely with people who implemented those programs. Again it is a national crisis, not one that's just focused here in San Francisco. It's a public health issue that needs to be dealt with with a public health lens.
CASSIDY: Diversion rates are up, conviction rates are down. What should voters take away from that?
CORRIEA: I think that the statistics, if you read them, are really mind-numbing, you know? How many cases came in the door and where they went, and which had action and which didn't.
What equates to safety?
We've seen in these high-charging, hard-on-crime jurisdictions increases in crime when some folks would suggest it should be the opposite.
What I want to say about statistics, this is the most telling: The burglary rates in some neighborhoods in San Francisco grew during the pandemic as crime patterns changed. I noticed that they were up in the Richmond and people were very upset about that, and I noticed they were down in other parts of town.
Folks tore into that the day after: "Look at burglaries out of control." I always wondered, "Well, what about where it's dropped?" Shouldn't you get an offsetting penalty there? I think statistics are not ultimately very helpful.
If you look at the chat [of viewer comments in the Zoom debate], it's almost scary how worried people are and the level of hostility. I would love to see more conversations like this.