Monday Morning Thoughts: Boudin Making History

Chesa Boudin discusses the new policy in a conversation with USC Law Professor Jody Armour during a Justice Collaborative event on Friday morning

Over the last few years we have talked a lot about progressive prosecution.  We have seen some stunning victories, like the victory of Larry Krasner and more recently Chesa Boudin in San Francisco.

We have suffered some heartbreaking defeats, like Tiffany Caban last summer in Queens and, more locally, Dean Johansson who in 2018 came within a few thousand votes of defeating three-term incumbent Jeff Reisig.

But one of the big questions is how much of an impact a DA can make.  Recently we spoke to Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, who talked about the things they have accomplished, but we have also seen the Philadelphia AG and legislature try to strip discretion from the Philly DA.

We spoke with Aramis Ayala from Florida, who is not going to seek a second term after the state’s high court upheld a ruling that took death penalty cases out of her jurisdiction.

However, now with the victory of Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, we can see in a largely unencumbered manner what a progressive prosecutor can really do.  We have already seen changes like ending cash bail.  But what we saw on Friday was something even more extraordinary, something no one has tried—the end of pretext stops, the end of sentencing enhancements for prior strikes and prison and the end of gang enhancements.

Chesa Boudin had scheduled a press conference for Friday morning following his discussion at the Justice Collaborative event with Professor Jody Armour, a law professor at USC.

During his discussion with the professor, they discussed the groundbreaking announcement that would come.

As Professor Armour put it, “The civil rights issue of our day is criminal justice.”

Chesa Boudin timed these changes, all of which disproportionately impact people of color, to coincide with Black History Month.

He said, “I think when we look back on the moment we’re in today, think about the changes we’re trying to implement in our office, think about the broader criminal justice reform movement—I think and hope that in 10 and 20 years from now, we’ll look back and say, of course three strikes is wrong, of course stop and frisk style policing is wrong, just as surely as we look back and say, of course slavery is wrong.

“We know that these are the civil rights issues of our generation,” he said.  “We have a lot of work to do.  It’s amazing to see every day, every step of the way, how much resistance there is to change.”

The stats here are overwhelming in terms of their disproportionate impact on people of color.

As Chesa Boudin and many others have pointed out, stop and frisk and pretext stops, where they stop someone for an articulable infraction in order to search them for contraband, are disproportionately used against people of color—particularly African Americans. And it really doesn’t work to make us safer.

We may hear about the one case where the officer stops someone and finds drugs or a weapon. But that’s comparatively rare. Most of the time, they stop someone and find nothing.

That is not a costless stop. That means that the US government is invading the privacy and person of a completely innocent person. And when it is disproportionately enforced, it undermines the authority and credibility of the police and creates suspicion in people of color.

As Chesa Boudin argued on Friday, these policies help drive racial disparities.

For example, even a policy like three strikes, which you could argue is race neutral on the surface, turns out to not be.

Their policy notes: “The Stanford study found that the use of sentencing enhancements in San Francisco accounted for about 1 out of 4 years served in jail and prison. This study found that the use of sentencing enhancements — mostly Prop. 8 priors and Three Strikes enhancements — accounted for half of the time served for enhancements.”

They add, “Worse still, these enhancements exacerbate racial disparities in the justice system: 45% of people serving life sentences in CDCR under the Three Strikes law are black.”

Gang enhancements are even worse—they are almost exclusively used against people of color.

The DA notes in his policy that “more than 90 percent of adults with a gang enhancement in state prison were either black or Latinx.”

And, of course, stop and frisk is almost exclusively used against people of color. In New York for example, in 2009, black and Latino people in New York were nine times as likely to be stopped by the police compared to white residents.

Maybe you could argue that this would be worth it, if there were a connection to crime prevention.

But according to Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff, whom we just interviewed for a podcast, “There is strong empirical support for declining to charge these status enhancements. Long sentences imposed by strike laws and gang enhancements provide little additional deterrence, often incapacitate long past what is required by public safety, impose serious and avoidable financial and public health costs in the process, and may even lead to greater rates of reoffending in the long run.”

According to Pfaff, a growing body of evidence-based studies have made it clear that what deters violent and anti-social behavior is not the threat of a long sentence imposed at some point in the future, only imposed in those cases that result in an arrest and conviction. What deters far more effectively is the risk of detection and apprehension in the first place. Policing deters; long sentences do little.”

In 2016, the DOJ did a report on San Francisco and one of the areas they looked at was stop and frisk, pretext stops.  Ten years earlier, the ACLU looked at pretext traffic stops in San Francisco.

“All of the data showed that police are stopping black San Franciscans at rates that are grossly disproportionate,” he said.  More importantly, when they do stop them, “they are less likely to find contraband than when they stop and search somebody that looks like me.”

Professor Armour emphasized “there is not a statistically rational relationship.”

Mr. Boudin added that “when police actually do search white people, the data tell us, they actually have a good reason to do it.  But when they search black and brown people, it’s more often because they’re black and brown.”

Chesa Boudin pointed out that the DOJ report came out in 2016, “and here we are four years later, and there’s virtually no change in police conduct.”

Chesa Boudin stopped all of this—a month into his term as DA. Hopefully others will follow.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Oertel

    So yes, Boudin is indeed “making history”

    SF DA Chesa Boudin drops charges against one of two suspects in viral attack on Asian man

    Let’s hope that restorative justice works regarding the younger person, at least.

    Not sure why the other guy isn’t being charged with a hate crime.  If they have the right guy, then so much for “aging out” of violent crimes.

    Check out the comment section, which I skimmed through. Seems like there’s (both) misunderstanding, and a lot of anger. It seems that a lot of that anger is due to what some might label as a “double standard”, regarding hate crimes.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Check out some of the comments, which imply that he might have felt “intimidated” into doing so.  In other words, fearful for his own safety, unless he agreed.

          Speculation, for sure.  But, who knows?

          How is it that charges are dropped, before the restorative justice process even begins?  What if (after the agreement is made), the the guy actually isn’t “sorry”, for lack of a better word? And still has no empathy for the pain that he caused to his victim? Since charges have already been dropped, what exactly is the result and consequences in such a situation?

          Are there statistics which compare recidivism rates between convictions vs. restorative justice? In a manner that’s not “politically motivated”?

          Do restorative justice processes still result in a record of some type?

          Ultimately, most people (I suspect) care more about not being the victim of a crime, vs. what happens to those who commit crimes against them.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Here’s a comment that has 125 “likes”, so far.  (No, I’m not one of them – just noting it.)

          “The victim is likely terrified, and when Chesea asked him if wanted the thug to be charged I’d bet he said no due to fear of retaliation.”

          1. David Greenwald

            Yeah except that’s a person that doesn’t understand how the process. Chesa wouldn’t personally ask him. A victim’s advocate would have after a lengthy process.

        3. Ron Oertel


          I would say that I’m generally open to learning more about this, and how effective it is (for all involved).  I guess we’ll see, as time goes on.

          Sure would be nice if our society (and world) moved toward a better place, with less anger and hatred of others.

  2. Kailin Wang

    While this sounds great, what if the alleged victim is someone your stuck in a custody battle with, all they want is to put their opponent away and terminate their parental rights, it could be used as a tactic, so I wonder what Boudin has in mind for those cases. Happens all the time in alleged DV Cases, False allegation, Abusing the DV-Laws. The Restraining Order is already used to get the upper hand in Custody Cases, this asking what the victims want could mean disaster.

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