On June 7, 2022, San Francisco voters recalled their District Attorney, Chesa Boudin. It might be tempting for law-and-order supporters to think that Boudin’s ouster marks a shift towards more meaningful crime prevention. However, a broader view of San Francisco residents’ sentiments seems to augur crime as usual.
The visibility of crime
Crime is a visible blight in San Francisco. Shop lifters walk out of stores with bags full of stolen merchandise, public drug use is everywhere, sidewalks serve as sleeping quarters and toilets. Cars are not safe from break-ins for long. The scenario is not surprising since candidate for DA Chesa Boudin made clear during his candidacy that he would not prosecute low-level and quality-of-life crimes.
Voters grew weary of this scenario. They tired of the stories daily in the media about the revolving door the DA’s office had become – criminals arrested, released, committing more crime, arrested again, released again.
On June 7, what San Francisco residents saw and experienced took precedence over the arguments made by Boudin and his supporters: Reform is necessary to root out racial bias that fills American prisons with people of color. Reform takes time, and results are not as visible as crime. There are other alternatives to holding people accountable besides incarceration.
This comment summarizes the outcome of the recall election:
People are happy to be progressive and happy to be anti-racist as long as their bike doesn’t get stolen, or they don’t watch a viral video of a theft at Walgreens. Once that happens, or they feel vulnerable in some way, they throw out the high-minded ideals that made them vote for a reformer. Lara Bazelon, University of San Francisco law professor, as quoted in The Atlantic, “Why California Wants to Recall Its Most Progressive Prosecutors”, April 28, 2022.
The fleeting nature of recalls
As Professor Bazelon indicates in the quote above, in a recall, voters can vote to oust officials for whom they voted in the first place. It’s like buyer’s remorse. Unfortunately, buyers’ remorse is often instantly forgotten when another well-advertised impractical item appears in the store window. On the same ballot that San Francisco voters voted to recall Chesa Boudin, they also helped elect another criminal justice reformer, Rob Bonta, for state Attorney General.
Criminal justice reform as embraced by Boudin and his compatriots is very much still on the table in San Francisco. Here are some quotes uttered soon after the DA’s recall.
This election does not mean that San Francisco has drifted to the far right on our approach to criminal justice. In fact, San Francisco has been a national beacon for progressive criminal justice reform for decades and will continue to do so with new leadership. Mary Jung, recall campaign chair, as quoted in The Crime Report, “California Remains National Beacon for Justice Reform”, June 8, 2022.
We insist that the next San Francisco district attorney pursue reform, reduce incarceration, hold police accountable when they break the law, and root out racial bias in the criminal justice system. ACLU of Northern California, Press Release, June 8, 2022.
…to be clear, sometimes accountability means rehab. Sometimes accountability means community service. It is not just about law and order and tough on crime and locking people up and throwing away the key … It’s about accountability when those lines are crossed and coming to a reasonable conclusion around justice and what that really means for, in some cases, not just the perpetrator but the people who fall victim to those crimes. Mayor London Breed, as quoted in S.F. Standard, “Mayor Breed Weighs In on DA Recall”, June 8, 2022
Let’s let that sink in: “… coming to a reasonable conclusion around justice and what that really means for, in some cases, not just the perpetrator but the people who fall victim to those crimes.”
Whose job is it anyway?
Reformers are correct that the American criminal justice system needs a good deal of improvement. It makes no sense that, according to what is known, American prisons house more people than any other country in the world. It does make sense that root causes of crime must figure in crime prevention.
However, reform is not the job of district attorneys (or judges). The job of DA’s is to protect residents from falling victims of crime using tools provided by law.
The job of criminal justice reform belongs to legislators. As long as legislators continue to pass counter-productive laws riddled with consequences detrimental to the very communities they are purportedly attempting to help, the causes of crime will remain. Think American job losses due to minimum wage, offshoring, automation, climate change regulation, formation of monopolies and conglomerates enabled by fiat money. Think legislation with embedded disincentives to throw off the shackles of dependence, to reject coddling in schools and jobs in the name of “equity,” to learn job skills in school instead of rhetoric.
The best thing district attorneys can do is keep to their knitting under the law. That does not mean they cannot, like every citizen can, encourage legislators to quit passing counter-productive legislation.
Whether that could possibly happen in San Francisco will become more clear once Mayor London Breed appoints the City’s interim DA.