Chesa Boudin’s recall isn’t about crime, it’s about gentrification
Prosecutors can do a lot to reduce harm and mitigate racial injustice in prosecutions, but they don’t control the policies or purse strings that govern investing in basic needs. As such, former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin simply lacked the power to invest in community services that have been proven to actually enhance public safety. His recall in June shows that progressive reforms cannot happen in a vacuum.
Polls show voters in San Francisco want to their district attorney to review and overturn wrongful convictions. They want the bureau to fight wage theft, stop prosecuting children as adults, and abolish bail.
Boudin implemented all of these policies while serving as a San Francisco district attorney. It has also helped to reduce violent crime to its lowest rate in nearly four decades. But the voters still called him back. How was a progressive prosecutor who implemented a series of grassroots policies driven out of office in San Francisco, of all people? And why has San Francisco Mayor London Breed appointed a replacement who is against these policies?
National media have claimed
the loss on a lack
for the movement to end mass incarceration. But Boudin’s dismissal is far from the death knell opponents would like to hear. Indeed, on the very day of the recall, progressive candidates won the primaries of Alameda
and Against Costa counties, just across the bay from San Francisco. Another progressive, Attorney General Rob Bonta, won
a statewide primary that day as well.
In reality, the movement to end mass incarceration is not nearly as damaged as opponents would like to believe. Yet this moment highlights a tension between communicating reforms to communities and resorting to older, but politically safer policies. We would do well to consider the real reasons why Boudin lost if we are to solidify support and build safer communities in the future. This means looking closely at public safety in the context of the housing crisis, the need for investment alongside harm reduction, and the challenges of electoral politics.
Public safety in the midst of a housing crisis
Boudin, a former public defender, took office in 2020 at the height of San Francisco’s rapid gentrification. At the time, a salary of $117,400 was judge
low incomes in the city and the rapid influx of wealthy tech workers widened the wealth gap between them and working-class San Franciscans. This gap had already cost thousands of people…a large portion of them are people of color— away from home. Rent more than double and evictions skyrockets. Homelessness followed.
As a prosecutor, Boudin could not undo the root causes of the displacement. Instead, he could lessen their hurt. He decriminalized
what are commonly referred to as “quality of life” crimes, such as public camping and public urination. He also sought alternatives to incarceration to address substance use, including investments in diversion programs that have been shown to reduce harm.
These policies angered people who wanted to control the housing crisis rather than invest in public housing and the support services needed to deal with it. This vocal minority Many times, loudlyand falsely confused
and homelessness with crime and blamed Boudin.
But polls have shown that San Franciscans felt
dangerous and sought-after affirmative solutions, not just harm reduction. And as district attorney, Boudin simply didn’t have the power to invest in community services proven to actually enhance public safety.
Boudin’s recall shows what can happen when policymakers and district attorneys work at cross purposes. To effectively move the city beyond the fight against poverty, Boudin’s policies needed a synchronized effort to invest in housing, treatment and social services –popularly supported efforts that can help reduce crime and enhance security. But that spending power usually rests with the legislature or the mayor.
Mayor Breed instead deployed “fighting crime” initiatives. She promised that the city would bemore aggressive with law enforcementas she declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin neighborhood, where many homeless people live. His response to the housing crisis reinforced the message of Boudin’s critics and undermined his efforts. After his loss, Breed appointed Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor who resigned to become the recall campaign facereplacing Boudin.
With Boudin no longer a convenient scapegoat, Breed will now face a similar challenge for New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who has also demanded aggressive police action and prosecution. When “reaction to crime” policies fail to ensure public safetythe lack of investment in vital social services becomes all the more glaring.
A gentrifying city
Boudin’s first election in 2019 was far from a term: he received
just 36% of the votes for first place in a race that saw just 42% turnout. While in office, he never built a coalition comprising the majority of the electorate, despite the popularity of his signature policies.
This left Boudin vulnerable to exactly what happened during his recall: the same vocal minority that favored policing during the housing crisis raised $7.2 million (more than double what his election campaign had brought in) to impeach him because he was decriminalizing poverty. Real estate and technology special interest groups have been among the biggest contributors to the effort. Indeed, the recall effort was fueled by the same forces that fueled the housing crisis.
The housing crisis has also changed the electoral map. Majority white neighborhoods voted most decisively to recall Boudin, while many neighborhoods with large communities of color voted against the recall. Philadelphia provides a case study of how too guarded
communities (often communities of color) tend to vote for smart reforms to the criminal justice system: Larry Krasner, a progressive district attorney very similar to Boudin, just was re-elected in a term from a predominantly black Philadelphia electorate.
The fight for justice continues
The challenges Boudin faced point to the work ahead. We need investments in services that have been proven to work, rather than spending millions and millions of dollars on policies that have a failure history. If we fail to garner that support, the progressive prosecutors we elect are vulnerable.
And we need communities to stay engaged – not just in electoral politics (although that remains critically important), but also in local politics – and continue to advocate for social services, housing and other supports that prevent travel and enhance public safety.
But amid those needs, and even amid the loss of Boudin, there remains optimism. Krasner’s recent re-election
and the Hit
of his policies in Philadelphia show that a smarter approach to public safety can still win. The same goes for the important work undertaken by Vera’s Court application partners, which are reducing racial disparities in lawsuits across the country. Prosecutors have the power and the responsibility to work to address some of the wrongdoings of the criminal justice system, especially its impact on communities of color. We must continue to hold accountable those who undertake to do so.