By Rory Fleming
If one believes the hype from certain writers at the San Francisco Chronicle, District Attorney Chesa Boudin has figuratively opened up the jail by dropping most criminal charges against anybody. But reality is usually not so simple. A new story from Susie Neilson reports on data from that office, showing that the reforms DA Boudin has made are in fact much more incremental.
In terms of charge rates, the biggest decarceral change that Boudin has made since taking office in 2020 was prosecuting fewer petty thefts. During former San Francisco DA George Gascón’s last two years, the office charged 58 percent of people arrested for that offense. During DA Boudin’s first two years, that went down to 35 percent. Standard theft charges also decreased from 62 percent of arrestees being charged to 46 percent.
For more serious crimes, including rape and willful homicide, DA Boudin actually charged arrestees more often than San Francisco DA Gascón. DA Boudin charged 63 percent of people arrested for rape in San Francisco, compared with 53 percent of people under Gascón. Perhaps strangely given his anti-carceral rhetoric, Boudin seems to be even tougher on narcotics offenses, charging 13 percent more arrestees in this category than Gascón did.
This is the truth that conservative opponents of decarceration want to shield from the public. Progressive prosecutors are not prison abolitionists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore or Angela Y. Davis. They are prosecutors. And they have much more in common with traditional American law enforcement than they do with Black Lives Matter, George Soros, or whoever else conservative pundits attempt to associate them with for political reasons.
The same story is true in other cities that have recently elected progressive prosecutors.
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner has charged roughly 29 percent fewer drug cases overall, but he is actually charging homicide, sexual crimes, and non-fatal shootings more often than his predecessor, R. Seth Williams. Despite a promise to “never” seek the death penalty, he did so anyway in at least one case.
In her first three years in office, Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Kim Foxx dropped about 30 percent of cases against felony defendants generally, which constituted a 35 percent increase in dismissals from her immediate predecessor. However, most of that drop came from drug cases, and she only managed to do so by diverting more defendants to drug treatment court. That is problematic, since drug courts don’t address real crime so much as act as a fig leaf for a policy of coerced abstinence.
In Boston, Suffolk County District Attorney has gotten a tremendous amount of both praise and ire for her policies to reject many misdemeanor charges as the default position. But now that her predecessor, Daniel F. Conley, is in private legal practice, he told the Washington Post that “In all candor, for years, we were dismissing these charges,” and that Rollins’s approach to low-level, nonviolent offenses “should not be portrayed as soft on crime by those who cling to the old ways of harsher prosecution.”
However, muddying the waters is necessary to keep the status quo of mass incarceration. By successfully painting these prosecutors not as law enforcement but ideologues who are pursuing an abolitionist agenda, anything more progressive than the current slate of “progressive prosecutors” would look to voters like madness. It helps voters forget that what most of Boudin’s political opponents, including purportedly progressive ones, such as Suzy Loftus, want is more crackdowns on property crimes and the homeless.
Since DA Boudin was first elected, local San Francisco media has done much to carry water for carceral conservative interests that are not too concerned with presenting the facts. Seeing this neutral, data-oriented coverage of this important topic from the Chronicle is a refreshing change of pace.
Rory Fleming is a freelance writer and licensed attorney.