Unpacking Chesa Boudin’s Progressive Prosecution

SF District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco in February 2020

By Elina Lingappa

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Last week, Radley Balko published an opinion article in The Washington Post, unpacking much of the misinformation and misguided sentiments which are driving the pushback against progressive prosecuting and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

Balko focused his critique around a recent case in which San Francisco resident Harry Mulholland came to the aid of a 75-year-old woman who was experiencing an attempted carjacking by three teenagers.

The teens fled the scene, although one 16-year-old girl was later arrested.

Mulholland was later contacted by local ABC reporter Dion Lim, who informed him that the District Attorney’s office had dropped the charges against the attacker. Lim repeatedly requested for Mulholland to comment, and, although he initially declined, after much insistence, he agreed.

According to Balko, the resulting article received enormous attention, in part due to support from right-wing figures like Andy Ngo. This was not Lim’s first jab at Boudin—she has written several critical articles about the San Francisco DA.

“Yet the case against Boudin’s record plays out a bit like Lim’s story,” wrote Balko. “It’s compelling at first blush, but it ultimately collapses with some scrutiny.”

The most severe discrepancy between Lim’s story and the truth: the charges against the attacker were never actually dropped. She is not only still facing charges, but she has a court date coming up soon.

In truth, juvenile cases are sealed under statewide California Law, which prohibits the DA from speaking on them. This was most likely the real reason Lim encountered difficulty finding further information about the case.

The case, while seemingly a misunderstanding, speaks to a much larger trend of the backlash against progressive prosecuting, especially DA Chesa Boudin.

“Ultimately, the case against Boudin rests on two assumptions: that crime in the city has exploded and that Boudin isn’t charging people at the rate his predecessors did.” Balko wrote, citing Lim’s article, the current recall Boudin effort, and countless other instances. “And neither of those assumptions is true.”

In the last year, car thefts and home burglaries have increased significantly in San Francisco.

This is a trend DA Boudin is well aware of, and he continues to be vocal on causes and how his office is approaching solutions.

However, violent crime as a whole saw an enormous decrease in 2020, down 25 percent from 2019, as Balko points out. Thus, he says the claim that Boudin’s office has overseen a “crime explosion” is simply unbased.

The second misconception, that Boudin is failing to charge offenders, also does not hold up against scrutiny. In fact, he is charging violent crime and property crimes at similar rates to his predecessor, DA George Gascón.

Joe Eskenazi of the Mission Local published an article unpacking these trends following a tragic case on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2020. Two women were killed by a speeding automobile, the driver of which was a convicted felon who was out on parole.

Many San Franciscans were furious at Boudin, and the misinformation began to grow.

Eskenazi addressed the claim that Boudin does not prosecute cases in full.

“Let the record show that Boudin’s office last year charged 73 percent of residential burglaries presented to it by the police; Gascon in 2019 prosecuted 75 percent.” He wrote, “Boudin last year charged 78 percent of drug cases; Gascon charged 83 percent. Boudin in 2020 charged 75 percent of homicide cases; Gascon in 2019 charged 65 percent.”

In fact, DA Boudin filed 4,300 new criminal cases just last year.

While Boudin’s office is clearly doing comparable work to Gascón’s, his office is facing unforeseen challenges in prosecuting cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“State Prison hasn’t picked up a single individual in San Francisco since early April,” Boudin said just after the incident on New Year’s Eve. “I literally cannot send anybody to prison. I have like 40 or 50 guys sentenced to state prison who are still in county jail.”

Thus, it is evident that, while they are facing setbacks, Boudin’s office remains vigilant against crime.

Nonetheless, many residents still feel weary about the progressive prosecuting model, believing that it does not do enough to deter crime.

This, too, appears misguided, according to recent studies.

Author Emily Bazelon unpacked this in her book, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration. In one particular section, she focuses on a study done in Harris County, Texas.

“The analysis showed that the misdemeanor defendants in Harris County who were detained pretrial were 30 percent more likely to commit a new felony in the 18 months after a bail hearing than the people who were released. They were also 20 percent more likely to commit a new misdemeanor,” she wrote.

“The results seem counterintuitive, but other research has found that jail and prison are ‘criminogenic’—locking people up makes them prone, on average, to reoffending, They lose their jobs, housing, and sense of stability, leaving them worse off to the point of desperation.”

Boudin has encountered much criticism for similar sentiments and his use of sentencing with minimal prison time. However, studies like this demonstrate that the progressive prosecuting model does work.

Boudin and his office, rather than taking a reactionary approach after crime has occurred, are honing in on new methods of preventing crime from ever occurring. One such tactic is avoiding prison sentencing when possible.

Boudin is far from alone in this sentiment. Those who commit crimes do so often out of a sense of desperation, and impulsive sentencing only exacerbates that need.

The victim of the carjacking covered by Dion Lim agrees with the approach, and even considered herself to be a supporter of Boudin. She expressed a sense of sympathy toward her attacker.

“A lot of these kids have been damaged, hurt by the system.” She said, “I don’t know the answer. I just hope she gets the help she needs.”

Elina Lingappa is a sophomore at the University of San Francisco double majoring in Sociology and Politics. She is originally from Seattle, Washington, and she is deeply passionate about the spheres of criminal justice and education equity.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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  1. Keith Olsen

    “This just happened at the @Walgreens on Gough & Fell Streets in San Francisco. #NoConsequences,” she wrote. Melendez tagged Walgreens and the city’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, in the post, which has been viewed more than two million times on Twitter. 

    She told ABC that she has seen three shoplifting sprees at different Walgreens in the Bay Area. “At what point do we say enough is enough, we want our city back?” she asked.

    “Seventeen Walgreens over the last five years, almost every Gap retail outlet is gone, CVS is under assault,” Ahsha Safai, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told ABC


    1. David Greenwald

      There is a big article on the flawed reporting of this – Walgreens was already planning to close those stores well before Chesa Boudin took office.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Which fully justifies the shop-lifting, right?  Doesn’t land on Boudin’s shoulders, per se, as he did not perpetrate the crimes… but your ‘tone’  in your 10:17 post, seems to be, ‘no crime was committed’…

        Elina appears to disparage Lim to justify Boudin… no ‘personal attack’ there, right? Just good reporting/journalism, not an ‘opinion piece’.  An “apologist” approach? That would fit with your 10:17 post…

    2. Keith Olsen

      San Francisco cops say viral Walgreens shoplifting incident is par for the course

      In a scathing statement, the city’s police union blamed city prosecutors for the shoplifting spree.
      This brazen criminal behavior is endured every single day by San Franciscans and it is the direct result of District Attorney Chesa Boudin and his enablers’ criminals-first agenda,” said Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.



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