San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin at a KQED Live event with Senior Political Editor Scott Shafer and Politics Correspondent Marisa Lagos, on May 3, 2022. (Alain McLaughlin/Special to KQED)
On June 7, San Franciscans will decide whether District Attorney Chesa Boudin gets to keep his job.
With the campaigns for and against his recall in full swing, Boudin joined Senior Politics Editor Scott Shafer and Politics Correspondent Marisa Lagos, hosts of KQED's Political Breakdown, at The Commons, KQED's new live event space, on Tuesday evening to field questions about his record as the city's top prosecutor.
Throughout Tuesday's event, Boudin pushed back against his critics, accusing them of oversimplifying and generally misrepresenting the issues. Prosecutions of car break-ins, for instance, require broader, multiagency cooperation, he said, as they're often perpetrated by organized criminal networks. Boudin also faulted the city's police — who are among his top critics — for consistently low arrest rates in these incidents. And he asserted that drug treatment is far more effective at addressing the crisis in the Tenderloin than are the mass arrests his critics have called for.
Watch the whole KQED interview with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
As Boudin defended his tenure and touted criminal justice reform more broadly, a small group of protesters outside the event chanted for his ouster.
Steven Lee, 73, who called himself a lifelong San Franciscan, stood outside KQED's doors, hoisting a sign that read "RECALL CHESA BOUDIN NOW." He said that he and many others in the city's Chinese community simply don't feel safe with Boudin as DA, amid an uptick in violent incidents against them.
Boudin told Shafer and Lagos that his office has taken strides to help the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, from hiring more language-proficient staff to helping "expand services specifically for Asian American crime victims."
Lee, who lives in the Inner Richmond neighborhood and regularly patrols Chinatown to help protect other Asian seniors, said Boudin's efforts haven't made him feel any safer.
"It's just lip service," he said. "If you want to protect Asians, you do something that's in line with your job, which is to prosecute, vigorously, the perpetrators who are committing the attacks. By saying, 'Well, we care about victims' — are we supposed to be impressed by that? Is the Asian community supposed to be impressed by that?"
The following excerpts from Boudin's KQED interview have been edited for length and clarity.
On SFPD not making enough arrests
An oft-made complaint against Boudin is that he fails to charge suspects, or under-charges them, allowing people who should be serving time in prison to reoffend. In response, Boudin on Tuesday pointed to what he called the shortcomings of the city’s police force in making enough arrests to begin with.
There's a need for the police department to do their job so we can do ours. Let's take auto burglaries, an issue that we know has plagued the city for at least a decade. Thirty-one thousand auto burglaries were reported in 2017. That was the year they hit peak. We probably had double that number because a lot weren't reported back then either.
Today, police are solving about 1% of reported auto burglaries. We're either filing new criminal charges or taking some other action to hold people accountable in about 90% of the cases police bring us.
But there's a problem. I don't care whether you believe in the death penalty or restorative justice, anything in the middle. We can't hold people accountable using any approach if police don't make arrests and if you're only making arrests in 1% of reported auto burglaries.
No wonder some people think they can get away with crimes. It has nothing to do with my policies, has nothing to do with what we're doing in the courts, or are not doing in the courts. If you commit auto burglary in San Francisco, there is a 99% chance, even if it gets reported, that the police will not arrest you.
Chief [Bill] Scott, in front of the Police Commission a couple of weeks ago, was asked about this, was asked about why clearance rates, the rate at which police are solving crimes that are reported, has declined by about 60% over the last 10 years. They asked about auto burglaries and property crimes. He says most of the time there's zero follow-up investigation. That's a problem that's way upstream. And whoever the district attorney is today, tomorrow, 10 years from now, we can't solve that problem if police aren't figuring out how to make arrests.
On how the 'Great Resignation' has hit the DA's office
When Boudin first took office, he fired at least seven attorneys. Two other attorneys, who quit, have since joined the effort to recall him. All told, some 40% of deputy district attorneys have left since Boudin took office. Boudin also has come under fire for hiring former public defenders, whom critics claim are inexperienced at criminal prosecution. Boudin on Tuesday sought to recontextualize that turnover.
The other thing that's important to remember is the recall wants you to focus on a handful of people I hired who are former defense attorneys. What they're not talking about is the more than a dozen people we've hired who are former prosecutors, many of them former prosecutors from within the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. People who left under prior administrations saw the work that I was doing, saw the leadership of our office team, and wanted to come back and be part of that team. We've recruited people back to the office who had left.
And here's the other thing that's important: All across the state, all across the country, there's a phenomenon known as "the Great Resignation." I just saw a news report on TV this morning that said 47 million people across this country quit their job in 2021, the most on record in any year in American history.
They're trying to focus on our office for political reasons. Every single district attorney in the state of California right now is having a hard time retaining their staff. When I talk to other elected DAs, some of them, 20 to 30% of their attorney positions are vacant. They can't hire people. We have people banging down the door to come work for us.
On measuring success
Traditionally, prosecutors have pointed to conviction rates as a measure of their success in office. But Boudin, who is among a growing group of progressive prosecutors across the country, has emphasized the need to prioritize rehabilitation over incarceration for many people ensnared in the criminal justice system.
Conviction rates incentivize individual prosecutors, and prosecutors' offices, to cut corners, and cutting corners can lead to wrongful convictions. It can lead to withholding evidence. One of the things that I committed to doing in 2019 — we measure success in part based on following through on the commitments that we made to voters — I committed to create a model, independent Innocence Commission. And I did that, led by a professor, a retired judge, forensic experts.
And just a couple weeks ago, they identified a man who had been wrongfully convicted of a murder, served 32 years in state prison for a murder he did not commit. And a judge in San Francisco reversed that conviction. That's doing justice not only going forward, but also looking backwards.
We measure success based on the extent to which we can implement policies and practices that are ethical, that are evidence-based, and that make San Francisco safer. I'm particularly interested in more effective ways to hold people accountable and increasing investment in services for victims of crime.
Recidivism, for example, is usually measured in increments that are longer than I've been in office. That's another part of the problem with the recall, right? It's not about good policy. It's about politics.
They're not interested in a conversation about what would actually make us safer. Nobody who's supporting this recall is looking at evidence-based practices or talking to criminologists. They're promoting fear. And they're using the kinds of tragedies that occur in every jurisdiction in this country to undermine policies that are grounded in racial justice, evidence and public safety.
Boudin on Tuesday pushed back, doubling down on his commitment to the AAPI community.
I am really proud of my record when it comes to crimes against Asian Americans. I have personally gone to the hospital to visit Asian American victims of violent crime. I've personally gone to court and argued to detain people who've committed violent crimes because I don't think it's safe for some of them to be released from custody. And we have a dedicated hate crime specialist in our office who doesn't only handle hate crimes — every single hate crime that comes into the office — but also is a point of contact with other district attorney offices around the Bay Area.
And through that partnership and that liaison, we've been able to file hate crimes in cases that were presented to us by police as a simple assault, because we've made the connection, we've seen a pattern of behavior, we've cooperated and collaborated with other law enforcement agencies. And we've been able to do the job the community wants.
And look, the leadership in Chinatown, the leadership in the Chinese and Asian American community in San Francisco, they see the work we're doing, the partnerships we're forging, the ways in which we are expanding resources for victims of crime, the ways in which we're increasing accountability for people who cause harm in the community. And you look at who's opposing this recall in the Asian American community, the Chinese leadership. I am proud to stand with every current and former recently elected Chinese American: former president of the Board of Supervisors Norman Yee, Mabel Teng, Phil Ting, Gordon Mar, Eric Mar, and Sandra Lee Fewer. The Rose Pak Democratic Club. We could go on and on. Folks who see the work that we're doing every day, who understand the challenges that we face, are saying to voters, reject this recall, vote no on Proposition H.
On the influence of his mom
Kathy Boudin, Chesa Boudin's mother, who was formerly a member of the leftist radical group The Weather Underground, died Sunday after a years-long fight with cancer. She and Boudin's father both served decades in prison for their involvement in a 1981 New York robbery, in which three people were killed.
Boudin on Tuesday spoke about his mom's influence on his life, his work, and his view of the criminal justice system.
I don't remember being 14 months old and them leaving me at the babysitter and never coming back. I don't remember them getting arrested, or even when the judge sentenced my mother to 20 years to life, and my father 75 years to life. My first memories are waiting in lines at prison gates to go through metal detectors just to be able to give my parents a hug.
And even before I understood what the law was or how the criminal justice system worked or what mass incarceration was, I noticed as a child that the lines at those prisons were almost all women and children of color.
It affected me because I saw and lived firsthand the failures of this country's approach to crime and public safety. I saw that we built the system of mass incarceration. We led the world in locking people up. And it wasn't making us safer. We weren't rehabilitating people who had committed crimes. We weren't meaningfully supporting victims of crime. And it was bankrupting local governments, starving our communities of the resources needed to invest in education and housing and mental health or drug treatment.
I know that we all get second chances in life. All of us do. And we need them. And I believe in them. I also know that we have to take responsibility for the mistakes that we made. I watched my parents. My mother pled guilty to a crime that she committed, and she served a very serious sentence as a result. She expressed remorse.
She lived her life in a way that exemplifies redemption. While she was in prison, she did lifesaving work around HIV/AIDS during the height of the pandemic. She taught literacy and parenting classes to other incarcerated women.
I grew up watching someone who had done a terrible thing that had cost lives, that had destroyed families and ripped a community apart. And I watched the ways in which she reinvented herself to try and make good for all the people around her. I believe that we are all more than our worst mistake. I know because I've seen it — that human beings have a capacity to change, and that's a critical thing we cannot forget when we do this work, any work.
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