By Michael Steven Smith and Marjorie Cohn
Progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin was elected 2-1/2 years ago by the people of San Francisco to be their district attorney. He promised “radical change to how we envision justice.” Chesa fulfilled his campaign promises by enacting programs and policies that would take on the phenomena of mass incarceration. The United States holds more people in prison (2.3 million) and more people in the criminal legal system (6 million on probation or parole) than any other country in the world.
Chesa enacted the policies he advocated when he ran. He eliminated cash bail which favors the rich and his office exonerated innocent people. He prosecuted white-collar criminals and brutal cops. He tried juveniles as juveniles, not adults. He set up diversion programs inasmuch as two-thirds of the people arrested in San Francisco are either drug addicts or mentally ill or both. He used the money saved to support victims of crimes.
But the ruling rich in our country have only one answer to the social problems we have: Lock ‘em up. Mass incarceration was their answer to the civil rights movement 50 years ago and it is still their answer today as demonstrated by the campaign they mounted to get rid of Chesa Boudin. They spent $6 million doing it – outspending Chesa’s supporters six to one. Hi-tech billionaires, real estate magnates, and the police union were the forces behind Chesa‘s defeat.
How did they do it? They used fear. When former president Richard Nixon, a native Californian, was asked at the end of his career what was his secret of his success he answered immediately that it was “fear,” adding, “and they don’t teach you that in the Boy Scouts.”
The forces in San Francisco aligned against Chesa using fear and lies. They used their money to spread these lies through a vast media campaign after first hiring signature gatherers to get the recall on the ballot. They lied about the true nature of crime in San Francisco, which in fact had gone down in most areas since Chesa took office. Between 2019 and 2021, violent crime rates in the city dropped and San Francisco’s murder rate is low in comparison to other major cities.
Interviews after the election indicated the issue for voters wasn’t even so much crime. They talked about the homeless, the mentally deranged, people defecating in the streets. In some ways, the recall was almost a referendum on the deteriorating condition of life in San Francisco (as everywhere).
As a progressive prosecutor, Chesa was the most prominent of a number of prosecutors across our country elected by people who want criminal justice reform. That is why he was targeted nationwide.
Progressive prosecutors throughout the United States are facing a backlash. There are threats to recall George Gascon in Los Angeles. Tori Verber Salazar is losing her election in San Joaquin County, California. And Alvin Bragg in Manhattan will likely face a challenge as well.
Is there a victory in Chesa’s defeat? Certainly. He led the way by his policies which reformed the San Francisco criminal legal system. Although he was defeated, Chesa showed us what needs to be done. He put together a team of reformers who have their work cut out for them.
Chesa Boudin, Presente!
This article was first published by LA Progressive.