SF DA Boudin fights recall

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday April 13, 2022
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San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, third from right, participated in an October 2, 2021 women's march. Photo: Bill Wilson
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, third from right, participated in an October 2, 2021 women's march. Photo: Bill Wilson

Few could have foreseen the longer term repercussions of that horrible tragedy on New Year's Eve 2020, when Troy Ramon McAlister, then 45, while allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamine, struck Elizabeth Platt and Hanako Abe as they entered a crosswalk at Mission and Second streets. Platt, 60, was killed on the spot; Abe, 27, died soon after in hospital.

McAlister, who pleaded not guilty in his arraignment a few days later, had a long arrest record and was out on parole. He is still being held at San Francisco County Jail #3 and is scheduled to appear again in court on April 27.

McAlister's record, and the role of the San Francisco District Attorney's office in the plea deal that had set the suspect free nine months earlier, came under immediate scrutiny and added urgency for those seeking to recall DA Chesa Boudin.

Fourteen months after Boudin, San Francisco's embattled district attorney, took office in January 2020, he was targeted with the first of what would be two efforts to recall him. Launched by failed, sometimes Republican, mayoral candidate Richie Greenberg in March 2021, the first recall effort fell 1,714 signatures short of the required 51,325 signatures needed by that August to spark a recall.

Boudin, 41, was one of a wave of progressive prosecutors elected to office around the country, beginning with Philadelphia County District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017, and including Rachael Rollins, the first Black woman to be elected to the office in Boston in 2019, and Alvin Leonard Bragg Jr., the first Black DA for New York County (Manhattan) in 2021. Running on promises to reform the criminal justice system, they sought to reduce prison populations by downgrading the severity of punishment for some crimes such as petty theft and drug possession, with a stronger focus on rehabilitation and crime prevention.

In his election to office, Boudin narrowly outpaced Suzy Loftus, who had been appointed interim DA just days before absentee ballots were sent out in October 2019. Mayor London Breed, who endorsed Loftus, named her to the interim post after former DA George Gascón abruptly resigned in early October. He moved to Southern California and is now DA in Los Angeles County, where he's facing a recall effort.

But people dissatisfied with Boudin launched a second recall effort while the first recall was still collecting signatures, and it succeeded where the prior effort had fizzled. Easily reaching the 51,325 signatures needed, organizers eventually collected more than 83,000, paving the way for the recall on the June 7 primary ballot.

San Francisco's two LGBTQ Democratic clubs split on the recall, which is Proposition H on the ballot. The more progressive Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club backs Boudin, while the more moderate Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club took no position.

"We endorsed Chesa Boudin in 2019 because he understands we can't have safety without equal justice, and we can't continue the draconian policies that made mass incarceration the new Jim Crow," Edward Wright, the president of the Milk club, wrote in an email to the Bay Area Reporter.

"We continue to strongly support District Attorney Boudin because he's delivering exactly the critical criminal justice reforms he promised," Wright stated. "Even with all the disruptions of the pandemic, he's expanded victim support services, eliminated cash bail, reduced violent crime rates through effective prosecution, tackled the corporate abuses of white collar crime, and filed the first-ever charges in San Francisco for police brutality.

"We refuse to turn back the page on reforming our broken criminal justice system, and we know the mass incarceration policies of the past will not make us safer," Wright added. "No district attorney can file charges for crimes that are never solved, and our biggest public safety challenge remains the 97% of cases [the San Francisco Police Department] leaves unsolved — and the wealth inequalities that drive property crimes. We hope to see a victorious Boudin administration that further expands victim support and language access services, continues to focus on addressing violent crime and reigning in corporate crimes, and works closely with community-based crime prevention programs."

The Alice club said the membership vote didn't meet the threshold for an endorsement.

"Without disclosing specific details of our political action committee discussions, the club was largely divided between wanting to stay out of yet another recall, not being happy with his performance as DA, or their support for Chesa — the bulk of which being the latter. Ultimately — a 60% threshold to make a recommendation wasn't met by our PAC, and our membership vote followed suit with no position," co-chair Gary McCoy wrote in a Facebook message.

Safer SF Without Boudin, the recall campaign led by former San Francisco Democratic Party chair Mary Jung, has been funded largely in part by a political action committee called Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy which has, so far, put more than $2.1 million into the recall effort. The PAC is funded in large part with money from Republican billionaire William Oberndorf, as well as money from real estate and tech interests. Jung, the San Francisco Examiner noted in 2016, "was a lobbyist who often met with Mayor [Ed] Lee on behalf of the San Francisco Association of Realtors — a group who frequently lobbies against rental protections in a renter-majority city."

A poll commissioned by Safer SF released in March shows 68% of likely primary voters support recalling Boudin, while 32% do not. (The poll was conducted by EMC Research among 800 likely voters in San Francisco.)

In defending his record, Boudin downplayed the poll results.

"The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day," Boudin said in an editorial board meeting with the Bay Area Reporter April 1. But he pointed out that a David Binder Research survey conducted in February "was a dramatically different poll; his poll had the pro-recall support at 44% and the opposition also at 44%. Now I know that's Assembly District 17 and not citywide but I can't imagine there's a 24-point spread between the east side and west side and that 100% of voters have their mind made up."

For his part, Boudin argues the recall is really a Republican effort. Safer SF leaders insist, however, that 83% of its donors are Democrats or independent voters; 80% of donors have given $250 or less; and 79% of their donors are from San Francisco.

Recall supporters argued that Boudin is soft on crime during a separate editorial board meeting with the B.A.R. March 31.

"It really has become crystal clear that it's not just one incident that catalyzed the work we're doing together," said Kate Maeder, a lesbian and Democratic political strategist with the Safer SF campaign, of her decision to work to recall Boudin. "It truly is a pattern of behavior and decisions that are making residents feel less safe, making victims and their families — speaking out time and time again — that they are not getting the justice they deserve. It's everyday folks seeing their cars get broken into time and time again.

"And it's this collective sentiment out there that Chesa's policies, especially these catch-and-release policies of not holding police accountable, not holding drug dealers accountable, not holding domestic abusers accountable and letting folks back on the street," Maeder added. "It's becoming crystal clear it's more of a pattern of his decision and his actions than a single moment."

Catch-and-release refers to people being arrested by police, who are released when the DA's office declines to file charges. Some are re-arrested again in other cases.

Crime statistics

Boudin's critics point to rising property crimes, as well as a slew of hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders during 2020 and 2021 as further evidence of his inability — or, according to some, his unwillingness — to prosecute violent criminals.

Nationwide, incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes — spurred on in part by then-President Donald Trump's blaming of the spread of the COVID pandemic on China — skyrocketed 339% between March 2020 through December 2021, according to San Francisco State University-based Stop AAPI Hate. San Francisco saw a 556% increase in attacks and crimes perpetrated against its Asian residents over the same period, going from nine reported attacks in 2020 to 60 in 2021.

Boudin insists his office has responded to the attacks. In his office's 2021 San Francisco District Attorney's Office Annual Report, Boudin claims to have "improved services, outreach and outcomes for members of the AAPI community in San Francisco through a variety of approaches."

That year "the District Attorney's Office filed 20 cases involving hate crime allegations — most of which involved AAPI victims," the report read. "To name a few, we filed hate crime charges against an individual who had repeatedly targeted Chinese-owned businesses and we charged a defendant with hate crimes for a string of robberies against Asian women."

Toward that end, in 2021 he appointed Kasie Lee as the first Chinese American woman to lead the Victim Services unit, as well as creating "a hate crime field guide for police officers to ensure they ask potential hate crime victims and witnesses the right questions to collect evidence needed to prosecute hate crimes," the report continued.

Property crimes, too, have increased dramatically, recall supporters argue. Incidents such as the vandalism attacks on businesses in the Castro earlier this year would, anecdotally, back them up. Burglaries, car theft, and homicides increased in 2021. Around the state, overall crime levels plummeted during the lockdown in 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California but the numbers have been climbing back up throughout California. Burglaries increased almost 50% from figures in 2019, while motor vehicle theft increased almost 30% in the same period. Homicides increased by more than 10% but, notably, they're still down 15% from the high of 2017.

Other crimes such as assaults, robberies, larceny and theft, and rapes all fell dramatically in 2020, with rape falling more than 50% from rates in 2017. Increases in those numbers since then are climbing up from historic lows in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.

Diversion programs

Boudin's critics argue, as well, that he charges dramatically fewer suspects in an ever-increasing number of crimes committed since he has taken office. One case in point: More than 50% of cases of illegal gun possession in 2020-2022 were dismissed by Boudin, according to Safer SF. Less than 4% of all cases were prosecuted as serious felonies and resulted in state prison sentences.

What Boudin has done is send more cases through diversion programs, though he said that judges are ultimately the ones who make the call about whether a defendant should go into such a program. He denied the Safer SF campaign's statements that he drops charges against those accepted into diversion programs.

'"When a judge accepts a request by the criminal defendant to go into the diversion, the charges are still there, and the case is still pending," Boudin told B.A.R. "If the defendant fails to comply with all the court-supervised programming and other requirements, whether it be drug treatment, taking prescribed medication, whether it be community services, whatever the court is requiring to be done, the case gets kicked right back to the criminal courtroom to face the original charges and the same charges and court number are reinstated.

"It gives us the optionality of guiding people toward the services and treatment they clearly need," he added, "without losing any ability to prosecute them using traditional tools if they refuse or fail to comply with that treatment program."

Studies have shown that defendants who complete the diversion programs recidivate 20% less frequently than those who do not, Boudin said.

The Safer SF Without Boudin recall campaign held a recent rally in Portsmouth Square in Chinatown. Photo: Courtesy Safer SF Without Boudin campaign  

Former ADA speaks out
Brooke Jenkins, a Black and Latina woman, was a former homicide prosecutor under Boudin. She left the district attorney's office in October 2021 and is now with the recall campaign. She was on the Zoom call with the Safer SF campaign and insisted she shares many of Boudin's progressive values but disagreed strongly with how he carried them out. Strongly enough to quit.

"I 100% agree we need to find and focus on alternatives to locking people up," Jenkins said. "That's not the solution in every case. That's what I want to see be a focus for us. That's something that Chesa has not done. He has not created any sort of new creative program or worked with the public defender's office in the courts to create a new collaborative court to address more issues that people are dealing with."

Collaborative courts, according to the website for the California court system, "combine judicial supervision with rehabilitation services that are rigorously monitored and focused on recovery to reduce recidivism and improve offender outcomes."

Boudin said that he's instituting reforms that he campaigned on. He denied that his goal is to basically get rid of all prosecutions for low-level offenders.

"No, I never said that," Boudin said. "I stand by what I said in 2019, that we should prioritize serious crime."

He said that he inherited 5,000 open cases from the previous DA and has been working on reducing that backlog. "Ninety-eight percent of cases do not go to trial," he said.

Staff turnover
Finally, Boudin's critics have raised concern about what they say is a high level of turnover in his office since he took over in 2020.

"What we are seeing is that the high level of turnover is that cases are being repeatedly reassigned within, sometimes, days of each other, weeks of each other to new lawyers," said Jenkins. "Most of the hires he's making are not folks with prior prosecution experience."

Many of his hires don't know how to manage prosecution cases, she argued.

Two days into his administration as district attorney, Boudin fired seven prosecutors, an action he deemed necessary "in order to put in place a management team that will help me accomplish the work I committed to do for San Francisco," Boudin said in a statement at the time. (Previous San Francisco DA's have also fired prosecutors upon taking office.)

Since then, many more have left, as well, but turnover, even high turnover in a district attorney's office isn't unusual. Throughout the United States, many DA offices see insanely high levels of turnover due to low pay (many jurisdictions in other states pay their assistant DAs and prosecutors less than $50,000 per year compared to San Francisco's starting wage of $114,816), work load, and as Yale Law School pointed out, more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.

�In general, large U.S. Attorneys' Offices are more likely to have positions available," noted Yale Law School Career Development Office in a report in 2016. "Large offices also tend to be in major cities and often experience higher turnover rates because of competition with private firms that may offer higher salaries."

Boudin said that there was high turnover in the DA's office "well before I was DA."

"It has its downsides," he said, "and cases can fall through the cracks. We're living through a two-year period where people are rethinking their life choices and leaving their jobs. The New York Times called it the 'great resignation.' The recall is trying to blame it on me."

He said he's brought back "many former assistant district attorneys and recruited people from other offices."

"It brings new energy and ideas," Boudin said. "We can all agree the status quo in San Francisco was not working. Voters wanted and deserved a change. You need turnover and new identities."

Recall backers told the B.A.R. that they support criminal justice reform.

"Since day one on this campaign," said Maeder, "one of our internal mottos was that we can have criminal justice reform and public safety and there needs to be a balance for both."

If Boudin is recalled, Mayor London Breed would name his replacement. Depending on the outcome of a citywide ballot measure, that person may or may not be able to run for the job in 2023.

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