San Francisco Ousts a Prominent Criminal Justice Reformer

A well-funded campaign turned inchoate anger over the visible symptoms of inequality into a renunciation of reform.

Piper French   |    June 8, 2022

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin (Twitter/ @chesaboudin)

San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin was recalled by a significant margin, just two years after he was elected with a mandate to transform the city’s approach to prosecution. Mayor London Breed, a centrist Democrat who has publicly clashed with Boudin, will be tasked with appointing his interim replacement, who will hold office until a special election in November.

The recall is a critical blow to criminal justice reformers in the state, but it was one in a series of elections in the region involving progressive candidates on Tuesday. In nearby Contra Costa County, DA Diana Becton joined forces with Boudin in 2020 to form a small reform alliance and has also been targeted by law enforcement unions. As of publication, she enjoys a large lead against her tough-on-crime challenger. In Alameda County, in the East Bay, another reform-minded candidate is leading the open DA race and will likely be moving into a runoff. 

Still, Boudin is one of the most visible figures of the so-called progressive prosecutor movement, and the national media framed the recall as a litmus test for the viability of criminal legal system reform in the United States. The results demonstrate the immense challenges of trying to change prosecutorial practices in a place marked by dramatic inequality, at a moment of widespread backlash. They are a win for the group Safer SF Without Boudin, which was backed by an array of conservatives and centrist Democrats, and heavily funded by real estate interest groups, venture capitalists, and private equity firms.  

Perhaps more than anything, Boudin’s recall shows how inchoate anger over the visible symptoms of inequality—homelessness, public drug use, property crime–can crystallize into a renunciation of an individual politician, even as voters broadly desire the policies that politician champions. While a majority of voters wanted Boudin gone, a recent San Francisco Examiner poll found that even more supported moving mental health treatment out of jails, and diversion instead of incarceration for low-level offenses.

A former public defender, Boudin campaigned on reducing incarceration by doing away with sentencing enhancements, privileging diversion and restorative justice, and addressing racial bias in the criminal legal system. He inherited the DA’s office in January 2020, at a time when San Francisco was already suffering the consequences of income stratification and a severe housing shortage. By May of that year, homelessness had gone up by 285 percent in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, owing largely to the pandemic’s onset. Amidst a spate of overdoses, the Tenderloin has become perhaps the strongest symbol of Boudin’s failures to the pro-recall crowd, despite its historical reputation as a down-and-out zone akin to LA’s Skid Row or New York’s Bowery neighborhood.

Boudin has been strongly opposed by law enforcement unions after campaigning to hold police accountable for violence and misconduct. But he has also butted heads with Breed, who has been mayor since 2018 and whose preferred candidate for DA he defeated in 2019. After Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin and called for more police presence on its streets, Boudin criticized her plan, calling it ineffective and overly reliant on incarceration. In turn, she has lambasted him in outlets ranging from the New York Times’s podcast “Sway to NBC Bay Area, saying: “We need to start concentrating more on supporting the victims of this city than we are supporting in some cases, sadly, the criminals.”

Ludovic Blain, the executive director of California Donor’s Table, which supports people-of-color-led organizations in funding progressive candidates, isn’t necessarily surprised by Breed’s oppositional stance. “It’s actually in the mayor’s interest to have a DA that works with the cops because they make the mayor look better, even though they’re not solving any ongoing problems,” he told Bolts. But he believes Breed’s public contempt for Boudin had a noticeable impact on the race. “It means that it’s not just Republicans against Chesa—It’s also a Democratic woman of color,” Blain said.

Criticism from Breed and Brooke Jenkins, a Black former prosecutor in Boudin’s office who left and became a prominent spokesperson for the recall campaign, helped Boudin’s opponents shift the narrative around race and the criminal legal system. Boudin’s winning 2019 campaign centered on the widely-held belief that the system requires structural reforms to address racial bias, while Jenkins and Safer SF Without Boudin pushed for his recall by arguing his reforms hurt communities of color. 

As the pandemic brought about a troubling rise in violence against Asian Americans, especially elders, many blamed the DA for not doing enough to prevent these crimes or hold their perpetrators accountable. Boudin took pains to highlight his initiatives for the AAPI community, including hiring a number of Chinese speaking victims’ advocates, inaugurating an AAPI Victims’ Services unit, and expanding language access in court. He also sought hate crimes charges in 17 cases since taking office. 

“He is the first district attorney and one of the first SF politicians who has really brought a broader racial justice lens to his office and put some of those cases in a broader context of the history of racism and white supremacy in the country,” said Celi Tamayo-Lee, the co-director of SF Rising Action Fund. Tamayo-Lee said these efforts seemed to resonate with the working class AAPI voters that SFRAF’s canvassers spoke to. Still, they ultimately made little impact on the prevailing narrative that Boudin didn’t care about ending violence against AAPI communities. 

The recall campaign itself seized on these powerful narratives, raising $7.2 million and spending much of that money making Boudin the figurehead for all of San Francisco’s ills. Amidst this multipronged opposition, Boudin struggled to win over voters who aren’t already sold on criminal justice reform. Like the best-known reform DAs across the country, including Los Angeles’s George Gascón and Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, who easily prevailed in his own re-election race in 2021, he has emphasized that his approach is backed up by data, pointing out that San Francisco is not an anomaly—crime is going up in most counties in California, including places with more punitive incumbents like Orange County and Sacramento County. But voters in San Francisco proved more susceptible to inflammatory messages about crime and disorder. And the DA’s original message about a better, kinder, more just system—which resonated enough with voters that they elected him to office back in 2019, albeit by a thin margin—faded into the distance. 

On a night where reformers scored more promising results elsewhere, Boudin’s loss is not a death knell for the progressive prosecutor movement. But it is a reminder of the fear-driven politics that have long influenced policy around criminal punishment and incarceration. “The recall wants us to think that we’re going to be safer without him,” said Tamayo-Lee. As recall attempts become an increasingly common tool of reactionary and centrist forces in California, it is a playbook that may well be used again. 

The article has been updated with the correct timeline of the next election following the recall; Blain’s quote has been updated to correct a transcription error.