Inside Chesa Boudin's quest to be America's next progressive DA
Chesa Boudin has never known a life that was not touched by the criminal justice system. When he was just 14 months old, both of his parents — then members of the Weather Underground, a radical leftwing group active in the 1960s and '70s — were incarcerated for driving the car in an armed robbery that resulted in the death of three people. Now 39 years old and a San Francisco deputy public defender, Boudin continues to have a personal connection to incarceration: Though his mother has been released, his father is still in prison.
This lifelong exposure to the criminal justice system has given Boudin insight and inspiration to position himself as the change candidate in the race for the top law enforcement position in San Francisco, a notably liberal city that struggles with law enforcement brutality. His candidacy is founded on the idea of transforming the office, as he's proposed policy solutions like the elimination of cash bail, the expansion of mental health services, and an end to mass incarceration. He also calls for the creation of a Wrongful Convictions Unit, which would work cooperatively with lawyers representing those seeking exoneration to examine cases and make corrections when applicable. He additionally wants to oversee a massive expansion of language access for those for whom English is not a primary language and the testing of every rape kit.
“If people want fundamental reform, it starts with fundamentally changing the people and the ideas that we elect to the office of district attorney,” Boudin told Mic in a recent interview. On Tuesday, his biggest challenger will be Suzy Loftus, the current acting district attorney who formerly served as prosecutor and police commissioner. Loftus was appointed to the seat in early October by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a move that was met by much critique and protest as being a “power grab” by Breed to "undermine democracy." Endorsements from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have cemented Loftus' standing as the establishment candidate.
The San Francisco DA role is higher-profile than most; the office was once held by California Sen. Kamala Harris and served as a launching pad for her rise to the national stage. But Boudin hopes to be a district attorney unlike San Francisco has ever had.
“We need DAs who understand the broader social costs of incarceration, who understand there are other ways to address crime and public safety than locking people up," Boudin says. He adds that many of the issues he knows to be connected to the root causes of crime — particularly mental health, drug addiction, and housing insecurity — are too often ignored when it comes to fashioning appropriate sentences or conditions of release.
His plan is to center those root causes in the city's approach to public safety, rather than to focus on consequences, punishments, and after-the-crime strategies. Focusing on those sorts of issues could prevent crime initially and cut down on recidivism, he claims.
In the national criminal justice reform conversation, activists and leaders often note the extreme nature of the U.S. criminal justice system. The ACLU points out that while the U.S. only makes up 5% of the world’s population, it holds nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. The NAACP notes that Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white Americans; in 2015, though Black and Latino people made up only 32% of the U.S. population, they accounted for 56% of all incarcerated people.
Instead of making us safer, mass incarceration is destroying families and communities, Boudin argues. He also notes that it’s a tremendous waste of government resources, which could instead go toward rehabilitation and restorative justice practices. “I don’t identify as a prison abolitionist, but we do need to wake up and realize this is a major civil rights issue of our generation,” he says. “We need to do a much better job of preventing crime, healing the harm crime causes, and not simply focusing on punishing people.”
Boudin’s candidacy does not exist in a vacuum: Should he win the election, he will join a small national wave of progressive prosecutors, including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and Kim Foxx in Cook County, Illinois. Members of this ideological movement, referred to as "decarceral" district attorneys, argue that criminal justice reform can not only result from activist pressure outside the system, but also from inside the system itself. Boudin has received endorsements from all of these prosecutors, in addition to a high-profile endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a leading presidential candidate.
Boudin's critics wonder if he isn't vying for the wrong job, echoing the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board when it wrote that it “seemed as if [Boudin] should be running for public defender instead of district attorney.” The Chronicle endorsed Loftus. But Boudin believes he can more directly effect wide change as a district attorney than he would be able to as a deputy public defender.
“Public defenders generally handle one case at a time, and so there’s a limited capacity to influence broader public policy,” Boudin says, "whereas with the DA’s office, the job is to set the public policy agenda for how we’re going to keep our communities safe.”
One of his primary goals, should he win, would be to improve the relationship between law enforcement and San Francisco's non-white communities, who are disproportionately impacted by disparate policing and mass incarceration.
“There's a lot of distrust in many of these communities, with police and law enforcement, and an unwillingness to cooperate,” Boudin says. “We need to do a much better job to let our communities know we're there for them, not only when we need their testimony to secure a conviction, but also when they need our help to recover from trauma that they’ve experienced.”
While Boudin recognizes the importance of cutting down the over-policing and prosecution of traditionally marginalized communities, especially for nonviolent crimes, he also believes there are other ways prosecutors can keep their communities healthy and safe. To his mind, that mandate takes him well beyond ending mass incarceration and racial disparities in policing.
“We also need to remember that being a progressive prosecutor means enforcing laws in areas that are not traditionally enforced,” Boudin says, explicitly mentioning issues like protecting tenants in landlord-tenant disputes, enforcing environmental protections, prosecuting white-collar crime, and going after pharmaceutical companies. That sort of law enforcement, he says, would be more equitable and ultimately more effective in keeping communities safe.
On Tuesday, Americans will learn whether that message of change resonates with the people of San Francisco.