Endorsement: Chesa Boudin is many things. Incompetent isn’t one of them. Vote no on recall
April 23, 2022
A 23-year-old youth mentor shot dead with a gun stolen from the back of a police car. A woman violently assaulted by a mentally ill homeless man as she entered her Embarcadero condo — captured on camera for the world to see. A probationer charged with 11 felonies, including ramming a police car with a stolen vehicle, freed from jail to walk the streets pending trial. A sea of car windows smashed while police stood by and “shrugged.” Residents livid about “the desecration of any sort of property rights or safety in San Francisco.”
No, these aren’t descriptions of life under District Attorney Chesa Boudin. This was San Francisco in 2017, 2018 and 2019 — in the run-up to Boudin’s election. Then, like now, headlines inspired outrage. Then, like now, there were those who demanded the city get tough.
And yet, in the 2019 election, when given the chance to select Nancy Tung, who vowed to crack down on drug and quality-of-life crimes, San Francisco voters rejected her resoundingly. They also narrowly dismissed Suzy Loftus, the then-acting district attorney who had charted an approach straddling toughness and reform.
Instead, San Franciscans put their trust in Boudin, who promised to pursue a more compassionate form of criminal justice that “diverted” nonviolent offenders away from jails and prisons and toward court-monitored rehabilitation programs that could potentially help them escape the cycle of recidivism.
Voters weren’t naive in making this selection. Concerns over the excesses and racial injustices of California’s traditional crime and punishment justice system were well-founded — and available data suggested Boudin’s approach could have merit.
A 2016 San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Legislative Analyst report found that police crackdowns on the kind of low-level quality-of-life crimes that plague the city wasted money and produced little results. The report recommended shifting resources away from the criminal justice system to social and housing services.
Diversion data also showed promise. One San Francisco program boasted a 96% success rate in preventing recidivism — although some criminal justice experts cautioned that such results might be cherry-picked, because diversion programs at that time were typically reserved for offenders who showed the best chances of success.
Scaling up diversion is an experiment — one that we are now in the middle of. True to his campaign promise, Boudin is diverting a far greater percentage of cases than his predecessors.
Critics have branded this approach “catch and release.” But this is a cynical depiction of the plan voters knew they were signing up for.
Recall is a last-ditch tool for emergencies, not buyer’s remorse. And San Franciscans should respond accordingly by voting no on Proposition H.
Former homicide prosecutor Brooke Jenkins, a self-professed progressive who recently resigned from Boudin’s office, is among those leading the recall charge. In an interview with the editorial board, she argued that Boudin has brought a public defender’s mindset to his office, and in doing so has removed the will to effectively prosecute crime. She questioned his overreliance on diversion — and the efficacy with which he used it — and advocated for a balanced approach between compassion and toughness, like that of Loftus. The Chronicle’s editorial board offered similar critiques of Boudin’s strategy when he ran for office in 2019 — and ultimately decided not to endorse his candidacy.
Tactical differences of opinion, however, are not recallable offenses. And Jenkins or anyone else who decries Boudin’s methods and execution are free to run against him in two years.
In his recall endorsement interview with The Chronicle, Boudin was thoughtful, strategic and more than capable of justifying his decision-making. Boudin may be many things, but incompetent is not among them.
Crime stats that mirror those of when Boudin took office do not justify a recall. Violent crime is low and has stayed low even as it has surged across the country at rates not seen since the 1960s. Property crime rates were unacceptable before Boudin arrived and they are unacceptable now. San Franciscans have a right to be outraged. But prematurely sacking the district attorney won’t be a magic fix.
Cities across the country — regardless of their criminal justice approach — have struggled after COVID lockdowns lifted. A tough-talking district attorney may offer reassurance to some uneasy minds, but aggression is hardly a criminal panacea. One need only look to Sacramento, where aggregated assaults and homicides shot up 43% and 67% respectively from 2019 to 2021 under District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s notoriously harsh watch.
Reducing crime demands holistic solutions, and Boudin is far from the only leader who needs to step up.
Boudin vowed to fight crime by building a justice infrastructure that attempts to rehabilitate instead of incarcerate. That effort is a work in process. It may never come to fruition. But San Francisco voters signed up for a four-year experiment. We should have the courage of our conviction to wait for the results.
This commentary is from The Chronicle’s editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.