On Tuesday, San Francisco voters approved the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. What are the reasons behind the decision? Are voters angry about her policies on mental health and housing? What is her potential impact on reform prosecutors in other parts of the country? We have all watched as politicians and police unions have rallied behind their opponents and scapegoated progressive prosecutors. But what can we do to stop these political attacks?
San Francisco voters recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin
The district attorney in San Francisco whose recall was approved by voters by 60 percent could soon be history. Boudin’s progressive policing tactics helped channel the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement and eliminated cash bail. She also pursued criminal prosecutions against nine police officers. Yet, her opponents credited the recall on conservative forces. And while only 7% of San Francisco voters register as Republicans, her opponents have blamed conservatives for the recall.
In addition to harried residents, critics of Boudin included former employees. Shirin Oloumi, a former district attorney who specialized in car break-ins, described an environment of chaos and mismanagement. David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University, also criticized Boudin. Both sides are attempting to portray Boudin as an anti-police progressive who only wants to keep her office.
A partisan debate over policing in San Francisco has ended with the election results. While Boudin’s supporters have praised her work to combat crime and fight drug dealers, her opponents have said she is too permissive. In the past two years, San Francisco’s crime rate has fallen but homicides and burglaries have spiked. Boudin, a former public defender, was elected in January 2019 as San Francisco’s district attorney.
While the results are disappointing for those who believe in reform, many progressives have cast this election as local politics and a chance to promote reform. Many have suggested the results are nothing more than local politics, ignoring the impact of criminal justice reform and policing in San Francisco. In fact, they may even make matters worse. However, these results are merely a sign of the changing political climate.
Opponents of the District Attorney’s recall claim that her victory could set a precedent for other similar attempts to recall district attorneys across the country. Indeed, opponents of the San Francisco recall are also trying to recall Los Angeles DA George Gascon, who previously held the same role. If the recall is successful, it may set back the progressive prosecutor movement in the city. But the city’s homeless population and rising crime rates have distorted the public’s perception of security.
Voters’ anger at housing, mental-health policies
An estimated 44 million Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder. Of these, 5.6 million suffer from severe mental illnesses, and many live on disability benefits. Many spend years in psychiatric hospitals or on the streets, and are often overlooked by politicians. These people have neither money nor votes, and are not represented by their elected officials. But that’s changing. Voters’ anger is a strong indication that something must be done about this problem.
Among the reasons for voters’ dissatisfaction and anger with housing and mental-health policies is the deterioration of city life. While this isn’t the primary cause of their dissatisfaction, it may be an underappreciated factor in their choices. Housing and mental health policies are among the issues voters most often point to as reasons for their dissatisfaction.
In a recent poll, the Los Angeles Business Council Institute and the Los Angeles Times surveyed residents about their attitudes toward housing and mental-health policies. Results showed that nearly four in 10 voters said homelessness or housing insecurity affected their quality of life. More than half said they were worried about the safety of the people in their neighborhood. This is consistent with the general feeling of concern among voters who live in Los Angeles.
The poll also found that people with mental illnesses and other disabilities are disproportionately affected by voting barriers. As a result, they often feel forgotten by hospital staff who are indifferent to Election Day. Moreover, the lack of assistance from mental health professionals means that these individuals aren’t meeting their legal obligations to help them vote. Despite federal law that requires mental health professionals to offer assistance to voters, many mental-health professionals are failing to fulfill their responsibility to help them get the information they need to vote.
Potential threat to reform prosecutors in other parts of the country
The potential threat to reform prosecutors in other parts of America is significant, because crime rates are a function of many factors including prosecutors’ policies. Some research shows that tougher punishments don’t necessarily deter crime, and some regions of California that have “tough on crime” DAs have higher crime rates than San Francisco. The recall of Chesa Boudin has galvanized reform prosecutors throughout the country, but it’s also a signal that police unions are putting up their own resistance to progressive prosecutors.
In California, progressive prosecutors have claimed victory in liberal cities and vowed to roll back decades of hard-line, anti-police policies. They also hope to change the public perception of DAs. In Philadelphia, for example, progressive district attorney Larry Krasner has been described as Dirty Harry in a suit. Several of these reforms are already underway.
A recall of Chesa Boudin in San Francisco could be a threat to prosecutors across the country. While this particular recall is highly contested, voters in other parts of the country could be similarly shaken by the outcome. As a public advocate, Boudin is a former public defender and son of a Weather Underground terrorist. Her progressive agenda is one that focuses on addressing crime and racism in the legal system. But critics have criticized her lenient approach to criminal cases and questioned her credibility.
The proposed rule change breaks decades of precedent and violates the sovereignty of states. Moreover, it severely limits the ability of elected prosecutors to exercise prosecutorial discretion. This will have devastating consequences for public safety and undermine the rule of law. More elected prosecutors must commit not to enforce criminal laws. A threat to reform prosecutors in other parts of the country if this change passes would be a “game changer.”
In response to the recall, a growing number of elected prosecutors are committing to the new vision of justice based on evidence-based policies and prioritizing cases that harm communities. Some are still rejecting these smarter approaches to justice, but a growing number of elected prosecutors have condemned Attorney General William Barr’s baseless attack on prosecutors and defended the principles of the Brady list.
Impact on criminal justice reform
If the recent reelection of Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin is anything to go by, her recall will likely put more pressure on reformers to convince voters that criminal justice reform is necessary. However, reformers should continue thinking about the benefits and risks of any particular effort. Indeed, changing America’s reputation as the world leader in incarceration is both just and necessary.
In the case of a district attorney, a reelection of Chesa Boudin could have disastrous effects on criminal justice reform in the state. District attorneys have little control over the main drivers of incarceration, and little power over the infrastructure needed to combat them. For example, county jails are often the largest providers of counseling and homeless shelters. And while Boudin’s campaign drew much of her support from these groups, she isn’t likely to have the same success with the Democrats.
The impact of Boudin’s recall is far-reaching. Her parents spent decades in prison for their role in a 1981 robbery. This makes her an easy target. In a city with visible intractable problems, she’s also an easy target. In Baltimore, crime has spiked to record levels, and the city is grappling with a homeless pandemic. A recall campaign was triggered by viral video of a shoplifting arrest and an attack on Asian Americans.
If Boudin’s reelection wins, it will have profound effects on the political landscape of California. The reelection of Chesa Boudin will also affect the state’s prosecutors’ ability to reform criminal justice. In Los Angeles, prosecutors have little to fear from the recall, because their actions are not representative of a national backlash. It will be interesting to see which progressive prosecutors will prevail in California.
In California, the recall of Chesa Boudin has already had a negative impact on reform prosecutors nationwide. Political strategists predict that the recall could spell disaster for reform prosecutors across the country. Democrats need to get tough on crime to avoid a disastrous midterm election. It will take more than a good D.A. to change the criminal justice system. There is no doubt that it will take time before reform prosecutors can recover.