“This Is Where the Real Work Begins”: What Chesa Boudin’s Win Means for San Francisco

Two San Francisco-based advocates discuss the organizing that helped Chesa Boudin, and the next steps for mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.

Daniel Nichanian   |    November 14, 2019

Chesa Boudin (Chesa Boudin’s campaign account/Facebook)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Two San Francisco advocates discuss the organizing that helped Chesa Boudin, and the next steps for mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.

Chesa Boudin, a public defender who drew national attention for his decarceral platform, will be the next district attorney of San Francisco. He prevailed last week against three other contenders, including interim DA Suzy Loftus. 

Boudin’s victory is among a national wave of candidates who were elected prosecutor last week on commitments to fight mass incarceration. 

He ran on never seeking cash bail, promoting restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration, creating a unit to investigate ICE agents, and not prosecuting so-called qualify of life crimes, among other policies. “Let’s make San Francisco safer and more humane by healing the harm that crime causes, not just punishing the symptoms,” he wrote in an August commentary calling for restorative justice in The Appeal. And upon winning last week, he told The Appeal: “It’s time for radical change to how we envision justice.” 

This week, I talked about the implications of Boudin’s win with two San Francisco advocates who supported his campaign: Lara Bazelon, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, and Emily Lee, director of San Francisco Rising Action Fund, a 501(c)4 organization that endorsed Boudin. I asked them about the organizing that went into Boudin’s victory, and about what they think is next for policy and activism around mass incarceration, immigration, and racial justice in San Francisco. 

You can listen to the conversation, or access it directly on SoundCloud. You can also read our transcript below.

Bazelon and Lee both view Boudin’s win as a reckoning with tough-on-crime politics, a rejection of what Bazelon calls the image of the prosecutor who tacks “as many skins as possible to the wall with no greater concept of the vast harm that that causes.” 

Lee added: “We’re going to turn that institution to something completely different than what it’s been. And that’s what this whole movement is about: It’s about reimagining what we do with our public offices.”

They point to pretrial detention, police accountability, ICE, and restorative justice as spaces poised for significant change. Lee called for advocates to press forward with demands to close a local jail, and treat Boudin’s win as an “opportunity for all of us to be pushing for experimental, new pilot programs, new interventions that are diverting people away from incarceration.”

But they also warned that transforming San Francisco will take continued activism. The Police Officers Association and other local actors may keep pushing against Boudin, as we have seen elsewhere. We have also seen elsewhere that reforms rolled out by reform-minded DAs can stall or move slowly, due to internal or external factors. “This is where the real work begins, right?” Lee said. “The job is not electing the person. The job is, once they’re elected, how is Chesa going to be able to carry out the reforms and the agenda that he set forth, and how do we as the public and the community help hold him accountable, but also support him so that he can do his job. … There needs to be a much larger movement around what he’s trying to do to make it reality.” 

She later added, “We’re going to keep ourselves organized.”

Daniel Nichanian: DA elections have long been quiet affairs. That has been changing, as it did in SF. Why is that? What outreach and organizing strategies went into elevating the visibility of the DA race, and centering its debates around mass incarceration?

Emily Lee: I think there’s two things. Obviously there’s been huge national wave of a kind of grassroots movement pushing DAs more to the left and to be more progressive. A lot of that is due in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement for Black lives. I think they’ve raised so much awareness around what is the impact if we don’t have a DA who’s going to hold police accountable. So I think that’s a huge reason why we see a national surge around electing progressive DAs. And I would say that in San Francisco, the majority of people still don’t know what the DA is or what it does. That’s what we saw when we were door knocking and talking to voters or when we were calling them on the phone. And that’s still true. So even though there’s been this kind of wave, it has a long way to go, I think, to really educate people and raise their understanding of how much the DA intimately can impact their lives, how much power and control the DA has. I think also there was a lot of education done with the district attorney forums that happened. I think there was over fifty forums across the entire city that people and organizations coordinated. But I think we made a start, from here on out everyone will be watching very closely.

Lara Bazelon: This is part of a national wave, but I feel like what made the San Francisco race truly interesting is that a lot of people nationally who are in the weeds on issues of criminal justice reform were maybe ready to write it off. The New York Times did a profile on Chesa early on and concluded something like, there’s very little daylight between Chesa and some of the other candidates, in particular Suzy Loftus, who was the favorite establishment candidate. This race to me was really about educating voters that there was plenty of daylight, and what it really means to be a progressive prosecutor. So Emily is absolutely right that, sort of at a baseline level, it’s about educating people that, “Wow, your DA matters,” and then beyond that, it’s about speaking to what a DA does. And so for so many years—the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, early 2000s—what did DAs do? They sort of outcompeted each other to see who would be the toughest on crime, and Republicans ran on that, Democrats ran on that. And that is what we thought DAs did: They charged people, they convicted them, and they tried to lock them up for as long as possible. 

It’s only really in the last, I don’t know, five to ten years that there’s been a reckoning with that and we’ve recognized, finally, that it’s racist, that we discriminate against people who are undocumented, that we discriminate against people who are poor. This election was really about surfacing those issues in a way that was telling voters, “We’re a progressive city, but actually when it comes to our DA, we could be a lot more progressive and here is an individual with a very specific message who is going to explain to you why that is.” And to me, that’s the triumph of this election is that it was really a referendum on what it means to be progressive and how far you can reach in terms of who you could put in that position of power.

Nichanian: Emily, you are the head of an organization that works on criminal justice reform but also on issues beyond the criminal legal system. What strategies did you use to connect mass incarceration to other spaces of organizing on social or economic justice?

Lee: I think for us, the issues related to the DA race around mass incarceration, around police accountability, around how the institution, like the office itself, like Laura said, is very racist, is very criminalizing of poverty and poor people. All of that connects to all issues we work on, right, because we work in immigrant communities that are being targeted by ICE right now and the Trump administration. We work in communities who are living below the poverty line in San Francisco and can’t afford to house their family. We really have families who are really struggling just to survive in the city which has so much wealth, and yet so many people are unable to access that wealth. And so, for us, the issue of mass incarceration will be tied with everything else we’re working on, from immigration, to housing, to workers’ rights, to young people’s rights. 

During the campaign season, we saw the San Francisco juvenile hall: Finally there was a political movement that was saying we need to close this jail down, we should not be locking up young people in cages, we should be supporting them with services and programs and rehabilitation and diversion, mental health. These are all issues tied to all the communities that we are grounded in, which is working-class low-income communities of color in San Francisco. 

So for us, it wasn’t a hard decision to say, why should we get involved in this race? It was very clear, and especially because there’s been so many incidences in the last, you know, five, seven years of police killings of innocent civilians for no reason. So many instances of police misconduct and acting with impunity, that in San Francisco and especially in Black communities and Latino communities, there’s just been so many high profile cases. There is no other need to say why is this important: because we are seeing people get killed on the streets every day. And that’s a huge tragedy, and also people are very angry about that because none of those police officers were charged, and there was no justice in a sense for those communities or those family members. We talked to Alex Nieto’s father, who says he goes to the place where his son was shot every morning at 7am. You know, that’s not something we can get back to him. For him, it’s like, he’s been in this fight for five years, right? It’s about how do we bring along other people who are very similar to Alex Nieto and his family, and really expose them to what can we do, what can we change so that police are not able to act with impunity, and they’re really held accountable, and that regular people feel like they have a role in doing that when they elect a progressive DA like Chesa.

Nichanian: One of the issues Emily just brought up is immigration, and indeed one of Boudin’s most emblematic commitments during the campaign was to create an immigration unit within the DA’s office to investigate ICE agents who violate people’s rights. Could one of you say more about that looks like, for a DA’s office to not cooperate with ICE. We often hear about this with sheriffs, or policing. Why is this an issue in a DA election in San Francisco?

Bazelon: It’s a huge issue because in jurisdictions that cooperate with ICE, what happens is if you are picked up and detained, regardless of whether you are convicted or not, and it’s discovered that you’re here and you’re not documented, you’re handed over to ICE, which essentially means if you’re in this country without papers, you will probably be deported. And so for example, in the federal system where there obviously is very close cooperation with ICE, if you are in custody, regardless of what happens at the end of your case, you are 99 percent of the time going to get deported. So in jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with ICE, when you’re in our system, the city system, regardless of what happens to you, ICE is not going to be notified. They’re not going to get some kind of notification from the district attorney’s office that, “Hey, we have this undocumented person in our jail or released on bail, come on and go pick them up.” This is especially crucial right now, given what’s happening at the federal level around immigration and this move toward mass deportations and the curtailing of people’s rights and just the scope and depth and breadth of the people who are getting scooped up and thrown out of this country. So it’s hugely significant. 

And I think, while the other candidates talked a lot of talk about how they wouldn’t cooperate, in fact, because they were career prosecutors they had, under other administrations. For example, when Suzy Loftus was high up in the policy department in Kamala Harris’s office, in SF DA’s office, they handed juveniles over to ICE regardless of whether they were convicted of any crimes. And so that’s a record that you have to live with. And when you have that contrast with someone who doesn’t have that record, and in fact has the opposite record, it’s generally, I think, more compelling to a voter who is deeply invested in that issue.

Nichanian: The city’s large racial disparities were at issue in the campaign; Emily alluded to this in the context of policing. Boudin highlighted in one ad that the majority of people in the city jail are African American, while African Americans make up a comparatively small share of the city. How did such disparities and experiences of racism fuel the organizing around this election? And how do you think a DA can make the most difference on this front, since part of racial inequalities stem from policing and arrests, or from other spaces like education or housing?

Lee: I feel like we heard so many stories of voters we talked to who were directly impacted by the criminal justice system. They had family who are incarcerated, they themselves have been incarcerated. We went to public housing in San Francisco, which is predominantly Black; we went to neighborhoods in San Francisco that were predominantly Latino and spoke only Spanish, and then we also did work talking to voters in Chinatown and Chinese-speaking voters. When we talked to those people, we had somebody who was a Spanish-speaking, Latino immigrant, a mom whose teenage son was charged with a misdemeanor, and it was about 12 years ago, and they had to pay a $20,000 bail fee, and that really impacted their family’s financial health. They were suffering for many, many years badly after that, and after learning about Chesa’s plan around eliminating cash bail, they became very clear about, “Okay, how is this going to benefit my family who’s been directly impacted,” right? And we just know that people of color, their bail is set at higher rates than white folks who’ve been charged with anything. We know that racism plays a role in all of those sentencing decisions. For us, you just can’t really separate the issues of race and the criminalization of poverty and also the targeting, overpolicing of communities of color. 

For us, the issue can’t be separated because of some of the statistics we know about who is currently incarcerated, and the statistic around the fact that there’s less than 5 percent of the population in San Francisco is Black, but the majority of incarcerated people in San Francisco jails are Black. It is a racial justice issue, and for many of the people we talked to that’s clear, because everyone has had some experience, whether it’s being in the system or interacting with police, that’s very clear to them that they’re being targeted because of their skin color, or because they’re homeless. And Chesa wasn’t afraid to talk about that. He was very clear about the racial component. And when he was asked that at a DA forum at San Francisco State that was held by formerly incarcerated students at SF State, he explicitly said, we can’t talk about this without talking about systemic racial oppression and systemic racism, we know that’s the root cause of this problem. To have a DA candidate say that is pretty compelling and pretty important for people to see that their experiences are really validated, and it’s not just about individual responsibility and you made a mistake. It’s actually deeper than that.

Bazelon: I would just say for anybody who is unfamiliar with what the Hall of Justice looks like, when you walk in there almost every single person who is in an orange jumpsuit is a Black or brown person, and it’s a pretty shocking reality and yet it’s our grimy everyday reality, and it is fundamentally racist. And I think just having someone stand up and say, directly and bluntly, this system is racist and here’s how I intend to fix it, is very refreshing. 

So you asked a question, I think it’s a really good one, how do you really change that as the DA, you’re not the police, you’re not deciding who to arrest, and that’s true. I mean, it’s true that Black adults in San Francisco are seven times more likely to be arrested than white people. But it’s also true, and this is at the back end, that they’re 10 times as likely to be convicted, and they’re more likely being booked on more serious charges, even based on similar conduct. They’re more likely to be jailed rather than bailed, more likely to be convicted of serious crimes and get longer sentences. And none of these disparities, in study after study, can be explained by age or homelessness or poverty or crime rates. So the question really comes to the DA, and they do a lot of things, they have a lot of power. There’s something called a declination rate, which means the police bring cases and you say I’m not going to prosecute this case. Or the question comes down to what to charge, and you don’t charge a very serious felony when you feel like a misdemeanor charge is more appropriate. So those are just two very simple ways that the DA can have a massive impact. Because a DA who just sort of funnels every case that the police bring to them is going to I think exacerbate a system a mass incarceration, particularly given who the police are in San Francisco. 

Unfortunately, as we know, that department is just tremendously problematic. And so the DA doesn’t have to be a rubber stamp. They can actually push back and be a check on racism. And I think Emily made the extremely important point that poverty and race cannot be disentangled from each other and Chesa Boudin’s promise never to see cash bail is enormously significant because we know that when people are jailed, they will plead guilty to almost anything, innocent or guilty, just to get out because they’re desperate to be united with their families, get their jobs back, stay in their housing. And so once you get someone out on bail and allow them to really fight their case, the outcomes for them are hugely significant and different. So that decision alone, I think is going to have impact on people who are poor and people of color.

Nichanian: This seems like a good opportunity to delve into the role and profile of a DA. I’m thinking first of a moment that I think really captures some of this campaign’s dynamics: One of Boudin’s opponents said that, given his politics, Boudin should be running for public defender, not for DA. I thought that was a striking statement in terms of the division of roles it implied, and this fixed idea of who should be fulfilling what function in the system. What is your reaction to this implied division of role, and also to the fact that Boudin is a public defender who has now won the DA race?

Lee: I’ll start, I’m sure Lara you have a lot to say about this as well. I mean, I think that’s exactly what we need. We need more public defenders to be running for DA in this country. Because the data, the research, the experiences of people show that locking people up is not the solution. That is not how you create public safety. That’s not how you reduce crime. There is so much that is just becoming the new common sense about how the fact is jailing people, incarcerating them, spending tons of money, is a complete waste of people’s lives, but also of resources. 

We’re going to turn that institution to something completely different than what it’s been. And that’s what this whole movement is about: It’s about reimagining what we do with our public offices. Because, yes, originally, that was what the DA always did, as Lara said at the beginning, just about trying to increase the number of people you lock up. And that’s what DAs bragged about, is how many people they put in jail, because that meant that they were keeping people safe. And I think that that is so archaic and disproven at this point that it’s ridiculous to think that a public defender should not run for DA. I think Chesa is going to be the forefront of a wave of public defenders running for DA. And I think that’s a great thing actually for our country, and to really reimagine how we’re using our public resources to rehabilitate people and to give them a second chance instead of throwing them away. 

Bazelon: The other thing that’s so interesting to me about that comment, though, you should run for public defender, is that it fundamentally misunderstands the role of the prosecutor. And it’s sad to me that more than almost a hundred years after this famous Supreme Court decision about the role of the prosecutor called Berger versus United States, there’s still this misunderstanding. What the Court said then was, a prosecutor is a minister of justice and to do that job they represent everybody equally. So the prosecutor isn’t there to represent a particular victim. They represent all of us, and their job is to do justice which means, if their case isn’t good, they dismiss it. It doesn’t mean seeking the highest possible sentence, it means seeking a just sentence, it means diversion, it means all kinds of things that come under this larger umbrella of doing justice. And so when you have this concept that is, as Emily said, archaic and narrow and antiquated, it’s also really sadly completely contradictory to what the role constitutionally is and has historically been understood. And unfortunately, for the last half a century or so there has been just a real warping of the idea of what a, quote, “real prosecutor” is, which is this tough on crime person who is interested in tacking as many skins as possible to the wall with no greater concept of the vast harm that that causes, not only because it doesn’t make people less safe, but because it devastates entire communities and really impoverishes us all.

Nichanian: I’d like to flip my question about the DA’s role here, because some in the movement against mass incarceration have expressed concerns about the role some DAs have come to occupy in it. One argument is that this elevates as movement leaders people whose job and arsenal of tools involve using the powers of the criminal legal system, which comes with all the structural problems we’ve been discussing. How did you approach or think about this set of concerns when you decided to make the San Francisco DA election an important part of your work this year?

Bazelon: I think this is a really important question because there is a segment of the left that feels like there is really no such thing as a progressive prosecutor and that being a prosecutor is inherently corrupting, and that anybody in that position is going to turn into a tool that promotes mass incarceration. And I guess I just fundamentally disagree with that. I think to take that position is to be purist to the detriment of everybody and ceding so much powerful space. So to those people, I would say, and are you happy with the alternative? You want to cede this ground to the status quo with which you are deeply and understandably dissatisfied. And I don’t believe that electing people like Chesa Boudin is going to mean perpetuating the status quo. First of all, because I think he’s proved substantively through his entire life who he is, but second of all, because the voters are going to hold him accountable. And if he doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do, and if he doesn’t truly shake things up, he’s not going to stay in office. So I just disagree with the position, although I understand it and it’s born, I think, out of so much really tragic and frustrating experience with the powerful opposition of the state, especially by people who have worked on behalf of voiceless and poor people, and just seeing over and over and over again, how difficult it is to get justice for their clients. So I understand it, but I don’t agree with it.

Lee: There are organizations that decided not to endorse in the race because of that very point you made. But I think for us, people who have to live with the day in day out the reality of actually living in and actually having family members who are in the system, that’s not a choice they can make. Our job is to change what the reality is, and our job is to shape it so that it is more just and it is more acceptable. I think there’s just too much at stake for all of our communities who are directly impacted by this to say that the DA doesn’t matter, because to them it has mattered in their lives, and it has made very tangible real impact. 

This is the challenge. This is what people call the challenge of co-governing, is about how do we get our elected officials in this imperfect society and our imperfect democracy to actually do the will of the people. And that’s our job. That is what we are trying to do by electing them and holding them accountable and getting the most progressive, the most accountable candidate into office. This is where the real work begins, right? The job is not electing the person. The job is, once they’re elected, how is Chesa going to be able to carry out the reforms and the agenda that he set forth, and how do we as the public and the community help hold him accountable, but also support him so that he can do his job because he’s one person, he’s not going to change it. There needs to be a much larger movement around what he’s trying to do to make it reality, and I think we go in with eyes wide open, about what it means to go into that seat and go into that system to really change things. It will be uphill even for him, because there’s much larger forces at play.

Nichanian: I’d like to delve further into what you were just saying about whether an elected official is pushing the envelope.  A growing number of DAs talk of “ending mass incarceration” at this point. Where does Boudin fit on their spectrum? What do you think are a few of his boldest and most radical proposals, in terms of shrinking the prison population and shrinking the footprint of the criminal legal system? And also, what are a few areas or issues where you think he could go further than what he has said, and where your coalitions intend to keep pushing him?

Bazelon: I think the two maybe most important policies that he’s put forward in terms of reducing or ending mass incarceration are, one, the bail policy, and it’s important to note that he’s been a leader nationally and in our state in challenging money bail, and we’ve talked about that a lot. But there is a direct connection between the number of people we lock up pretrial and the number of people who end up spending inordinate amounts of time in jail and prison. Another important policy is that he’s not going to seek certain kinds of enhancements. So for example, a lot of people get extra long sentences because gang enhancements get tacked on to the time that they’re already ordered to serve based on very flimsy and problematic evidence. 

And then the final thing that’s so, so important is that he has said he will offer restorative justice to any victim who wants it, and that is pretty powerful because restorative justice really is a very different way of looking at harm and looking at reknitting and healing communities. And it’s not about incarceration, it’s very victim-centered and it’s around putting victims and offenders and their respective communities together in various kinds of ways. Circles with facilitators for example, and having the harm done to the victim be validated, giving the victim a chance to control the narrative, whereas oftentimes it’s the prosecutor who does, and having both sides sort of come up with what they want out of the process. What’s so interesting is I think people assume victims are kind of monolithic and they all want the same thing, and what they want is a conviction and this huge sentence. And that’s just really a fundamental misunderstanding of a lot of victims, who they are, and what they actually want. I think he’s been really clear that it has to be voluntary and victim-centered, and it has to be something that they asked for. But assuming people take him up on that, and the research shows that they do, that when given a choice many people opt for this, that in and of itself is a radical plan to reduce mass incarceration.

Lee: I agree. I think that’s a huge leap in terms of bringing some practiced community interventions that have been used in schools, have been used in many other institutions to show, yes, restorative justice does work. But the current DA office has not been built to use it, and so he’s really reshaping and reimagining what that role of the DA can do and how it can further that. And I think it’s going to probably have the results in some experiments, and it’ll be challenging, and there’ll be some failures and some successes, and that’s part of the job. We should be using, seeing his stepping into office as an opportunity for all of us to be pushing for experimental, new pilot programs, new interventions that are diverting people away from incarceration. And I think he’s willing to do that, he’s willing to work with us, which is why people have supported him.

And I think in terms of things we want to hold him accountable for: We talked about closing juvenile hall, that was able to actually gain political traction from the entire board of supervisors supporting it. It became the kind of mainstream thing, support the closure of juvenile hall. And I think what the next fight is in San Francisco is closing 850 Bryant, and not building a new jail. That’s something that Chesa will be asked, and he will be asked by the community and by other advocates to say, will you commit to supporting this effort to close 850 Bryant, and I think that will be something that people will push him on very hard and hold him accountable. And it’s not an easy fight. It’s not an easy fight. 

We’re going to keep ourselves organized, we’re going to keep the campaign, the people, kind of the momentum from this campaign—that is what’s going to hold Chesa accountable to his platform and vision, in addition to his own kind of moral compass, but also, what we built through this campaign is what’s going to show whether he’s going to be accountable to us or not. So I think the question is, how do we make sure that this movement and this kind of groundswell support for him across the city maintains itself and sustains itself beyond the election night parties, right? That’s the real work ahead for us.

Nichanian: We have seen in other in other counties, in other states, different sorts of actors emerge as the main opponents of the reforms of the prosecutor (the attorney general in the context of Philadelphia, some judges in Virginia). Are there particular institutions in San Francisco that you think could challenge the sort of reforms that Boudin has proposed? 

Bazelon: I think you’re right to say that there has been pushback against various progressive DAs. For example, as you say in Philadelphia, with Larry Krasner, it’s not even just conflicts with the AG. It’s Philadelphia trial judges refusing to go along with pleas and other policies that have been hammered out, and the parties are all in agreement. Kim Gardner in St. Louis had a case taken away from her, a wrongful conviction case, where as the prosecutor she’s conceded it. There’s internal pushback within offices where there are longtime veteran district attorneys, assistant DAs who are unhappy with new management. I am pretty optimistic on those fronts in the sense that I don’t see the judges here acting that way. I don’t see the attorney general of California interfering the way that you’ve seen in Pennsylvania. I don’t see the legislature interfering the way that they have in Pennsylvania again, for example. 

The big challenge here is the Police Officers Association. The big challenge is the police. And you know this race, the POA spent $650,000 on attack ads. They were everywhere. And so I think there’s a lot of fence mending that needs to happen, but I’m optimistic that it will, in large part because he is a really singular individual in that he has the power to persuade people. And so my sense is that there is going to be fence mending, but I also think it’s going to require a lot of work. 

Lee: I would just add that with anybody who wants to come in and move and shake things up in a political establishment, you need to have support. You can’t do that alone, and you’re going to need other elected officials around you who are also going to support the kind of reform you’re trying to move. I think that’s very true in San Francisco, where we need to make sure we keep a progressive majority on the board of supervisors, we need to make sure we’re electing other folks for important city positions that are down with an agenda that’s about ending mass incarceration. 

So I think it’s all connected. It’s all tied together. Nothing can change solely because one person’s been elected. And we’ve seen that again, and again, and again. Obviously, they are a huge influence and huge impact. But if we’re talking about really changing an entire system, an entire way of doing the work, then that requires a citywide change actually, it’s not just the DA’s office. 

Part of it is building buy in from our other politicians and policymakers, legislators, all of that needs to also change the same time. The Police Officers Association, they will continue to try to take him down, and so I think for us, it’s how do we make sure that the conversation doesn’t devolve into these dog whistle attack ads that they’ve been using and actually, how do we make sure that what’s centered in the conversation is actual real people’s concerns. What people are worried about is housing. They’re worried about homeless people in their community, and how do you help those people. How do you get them the mental health services they need? They’re worried about education for their kids.

I’d love to end with a question on that, and go back to something we discussed earlier about the interconnections between mass incarceration and all the other issues you’ve been mentioning. One of the calls for progressive DAs to go further has been for them to look beyond the confines of the criminal legal system, to look for things that would shrink the criminal legal system and shrink the DA’s role. What would you want from the DA’s office when it comes to these other issues? How can those things connect so that the DA’s office plays a role in promoting policies that effectively might not involve the DA’s office?

Lee: I would just say that I think the DA is not, they’re not a service provider, right? I think we should be clear that the DA has a particular role in diverting people. But again they are not the ones who should be providing services necessarily, and there’s a big role to be partnering with and collaborating with community organizations, other agencies who do provide those direct kind of services. I think it’s going to be one of those things that we have to grapple with, is what does it actually look like to really prioritize diversion, because that’s resources and that’s money, so where do you get that money? Where does the city find the money to do that, and that’s a fight at City Hall, and it’s a fight over the budget, and that involves a lot of community-based organizations and people who are social workers and work with clients. It’s a huge question about what the priority for what the city spends its money on. And for too long, we spent too much money on police and incarceration. 

I think there is a question for me that I’m wondering is, so how does it actually look? How do you actually develop that system that’s going to divert people and that there’s a clear process and partnerships that have developed. And that is I think what some of the experimentation and piloting is going to be. I’m sure there’s successes that we can be also exploring from other cities when they’ve tried to focus on diversion, rehabilitation,providing access to services. But the reality is, there’s not enough right now. We don’t have enough housing, we don’t have enough shelters, we don’t have enough healthcare for people. So these are not problems a DA can solve on their own. The DA’s going to have to work very closely with a lot of different partners and stakeholders.

Bazelon: I think that’s a great answer. You’re right. The DA is not a school, and it’s not a hospital. And unfortunately, they have really been treated, sort of in a weird way, as both. And it’s very ineffectual. But that said, there are some really innovative programs that are much much less costly than jail and prison. And for so many people who commit crimes, at the root of it is poverty and addiction and lack of options. So Emily was talking about diversionary programs; they’re really important, all kinds of them. And rather than jailing someone who’s an addict over and over, knowing they’re going to get out and do it all over again, if you send them to treatment instead, and then give them the opportunity to get a job and provide wraparound services: That may seem very expensive, it’s actually a lot cheaper than sending them to jail and prison repeatedly and paying that huge cost. So I think that that is one specific way that a DA can reallocate resources away from spending tons of money jailing people, and more toward getting at the root causes of why they are offending and treating those causes so that the recidivism rate goes down and public safety increases.

Lee: Yeah, we talked with somebody who was the director of a job placement program who was like, “Oh my god, it’s so challenging for people who are coming out of jail and reentry programs for formerly incarcerated people,” and he was like, “Yeah, we need more resources, we need more help,” and I think he was convinced to vote for Chesa because of that commitment to diversion and rehabilitation, because it is investing in people and that takes resources. And there’s so many people who there’s just not enough right now, and we need to be figuring out how to expand those kinds of programs and really looking at the root causes—it’s a cycle, right, that people are going in and coming out and going back in again.

Bazelon: And I think, just to put a fine point on it, when people start complaining about the cost, what I would like to say to them is you can pay now or you can pay later, and if you pay later, you’re going to be paying a lot more.

Nichanian: Well, it’s gonna be very interesting to watch how all this unfold in the coming years. Thank you so much for making the time for this conversation.