Newly appointed San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins (left) is introduced by Mayor London Breed during a press conference at City Hall on July 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Thursday tapped Brooke Jenkins to be the city's next district attorney, choosing a homicide prosecutor who left the DA's office last year and became a leading critic of her former boss Chesa Boudin.
Jenkins described herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” but also said she intended to rebalance the office's approach to crime and punishment.
“As a Black and Latina woman, I have seen the imbalances and disproportionate impacts of our criminal justice firsthand,” Jenkins said at a City Hall press conference Thursday evening, after Breed introduced her. “I have had family members on both sides of the courtroom. My family has seen and felt the impacts of police violence. The inequity in the criminal justice system is not theoretical to me. It is part of my lived experience. Working together, I know we can make San Francisco a stronger, safer and more just place.”
In an interview with KQED in April, Jenkins criticized Boudin's charging decisions and said the plea deals he made were often far too lenient.
“When you execute a plea deal, it needs to be one that's responsible. Right? It needs to be one that's proportionate to your criminal history and your current crime, and it needs to also put you in a position not to reoffend,” she said.
Jenkins also found fault with what she saw as Boudin's rigid adherence to progressive policies.
“Much of the issue with Chesa that I see is that refusal to change course, even when he sees policies aren't working,” she said. “Even when the public is screaming out, ‘Hey, we support reform, but this type of reform is not effective in balancing public safety.’”
Jenkins now inherits an office she once called “a sinking ship.” On Thursday, she acknowledged that lingering instability, vowing to “restore office morale to a much higher place,” and pledging equal treatment for DA prosecutors hired before and after Boudin's arrival.
Breed emphasized that Jenkins, like Boudin, is committed to criminal justice reform. “This is not just about locking people up and throwing away the key,” she said. “This is not what we're about in this city. This is about striking a balance and doing what's right.”
Of the numerous candidates Breed interviewed for the job, Jenkins “stood out” as someone who not only recognized the need for compassion and understanding in the prosecutorial process, but also prioritized accountability and justice, the mayor said. “That balance of fairness is what made her stand apart.”
Jenkins, 40, was born and raised in the Bay Area and worked in private practice before joining the DA's office in 2014 as a prosecutor in the misdemeanors unit. She worked her way up to the general felonies unit, where she prosecuted hate crimes for nearly two years, and then served in the homicide unit until her resignation in protest last fall.
Set to be sworn in Friday, she will take over an office that has seen more than its share of turnover in recent years. Former DA Kamala Harris left the position to become California Attorney General in 2011, and her replacement, George Gascón, resigned in 2019 to run for Los Angeles DA.
Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the progressive Prosecutors Alliance of California, and a Boudin supporter, said the new DA’s first task should be preventing a mass exodus of attorneys.
“It’s better for victims and survivors of crime to not have a lot of turnover of their case from one lawyer to the next and one advocate to the next,” she said.
Jenkins, however, won’t have much time to get comfortable in the job. In November, voters will decide whether she or another candidate fills out the remaining year in Boudin’s term. If she wins, Jenkins will face voters again in 2023 if she decides to seek a full four-year term.
According to a source familiar with the process, the mayor has spent “every day” since last month's recall election thinking about this appointment, and held more than a dozen meetings at City Hall with community groups, former DA office staff, judges and various law enforcement officials. She also met with advocates for crime victims, as well as supporters and opponents of Boudin’s recall, the source said.
Breed reportedly asked potential appointees for their take on issues such as how to prosecute domestic violence, drug arrests and weapons charges. According to the mayor's office, Breed wanted someone with prosecutorial experience who also was a supporter of criminal justice reform.
Although Breed did not take a formal position on Boudin's recall, she had openly criticized his leadership, and it was evident she supported his removal from office, two-and-a-half years after he edged out her handpicked appointee, Suzy Loftus, in a very close election.
In addition to Jenkins, the mayor also reportedly considered Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Nancy Tung, who ran unsuccessfully for the job in 2019. Other potential candidates included SF Superior Court Judge Eric Fleming, a former prosecutor in the DA’s office, and Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who endorsed Boudin's recall.
Efforts to recall Boudin, a progressive reformer, began not long after he took office in 2020, just as the pandemic began turning life upside down. San Francisco's courts were included in the mass shutdown of in-person government operations, resulting in much slower prosecutions and resolutions of pending cases.
Boudin’s tenure also coincided with a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate crimes — both in San Francisco and across the country — as well as viral videos of organized “smash-and-grab” incidents at upscale stores in Union Square that fueled a general but often unfounded perception that crime was rising and Boudin was to blame.
“I think people being alone, people being isolated and existing through social media kind of led to a heightened sense that our city wasn’t safe, and [Boudin] took the blame for it,” said former police commissioner and recall opponent John Hamasaki. “He took the fall for it.”
Hamasaki, who was a strong critic of the San Francisco Police Department while he served as commissioner, noted that although the recall was framed by national media as a referendum on Boudin’s progressive policies, “within the recall crowd, there was never any specificity as to what they wanted — just that Boudin is doing a bad job and needs to be recalled.”
Indeed, shortly after the election, Breed insisted that she was not looking for a DA who would turn away from criminal justice reforms, which are broadly popular in San Francisco.
That sentiment was echoed by DeBerry.
“I think it would be extremely unfortunate for San Francisco to move away from reform,” she said. “There has been a long history in this city and county of looking for better approaches [than tough-on-crime policies] to creating safety.”
But attorney Doug Chan, who supported the recall, said that, within the Chinese community, “the perception was that the continued tenure of Chesa Boudin in the DA’s office constituted, in effect, a public health hazard.”
In fact, post-election analyses showed that some of the highest levels of support for the recall came in neighborhoods with large percentages of Asian American voters.
“I don’t believe there is a great groundswell of support in this town, in the Chinese community, to jail our way out of the issue,” Chan said. But, he added, “there has to be a better means of holding individuals accountable for doing bad acts out on the streets and for injury and, in some cases, even death.”
Boudin, who had been a public defender but never a prosecutor, kept many of his campaign promises, including his increased reliance on diversion programs as alternatives to prosecution and incarceration, and of holding police accountable for misconduct.
Now that Breed has made her choice for the city's top prosecutor, she will own perceptions, as well as realities, about crime in the city and how police, the DA and the courts are responding to it.
Boudin has not ruled out another run for the office, which would set up an epic clash and likely more hyperbolic coverage of San Francisco by national media outlets.
Assuming Jenkins wins in November, she will be on the ballot with Breed as the mayor seeks reelection in 2023, and Breed will no doubt do everything she can to help her succeed.
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